More Names for Pluto and Charon Surface Features

The scientists at JPL/NASA have released their first list of informal place names for features on the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest satellite Charon, all courtesy of the New Horizons space probe which passed through the Pluto system two weeks ago. While all of the names so far announced are “informal” (meaning, they are terms that have not been officially suggested and put forward to the IAU Nomenclature Committee), it is highly likely that most – if not all – will eventually become official.

First off, Pluto:


Pluto’s place names are all being drawn from either explorers (who haven’t already been honored with a named object elsewhere in the solar system) or with mythical dieties or lands relating to death or the underworld. And as the previously mentioned Cthulhu Regio indicates, NASA is choosing to use considerable leeway as to choosing appelations they feel are appropriate (note also the inclusion of “Balrog”, from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien).

And now… Charon:

charon names 2

Charon’s names are being drawn almost exclusively from “fantastical myth and literature”, and boy are they taking advantage of the opportunity. Names from the Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Alien, Doctor Who franchises abound. There’s even at least one anime reference (Macross Chasma, after the title ship from Space Fortress Macross/Robotech I), and arguably a second in Argo Chasma (“Argo” was the name used for the title ship Space Cruiser Yamato in its English translation, Star Blazers). The naming scheme on Charon seems to be that space ships get “chasmas” (canyons), fictional characters get craters, and people who actually lived get “mons” (mountains).

As a side note, one of the reasons why I think Argo Chasma is indeed a reference to Space Cruiser Yamato is because in Yamato I, the Yamato actually visits Pluto and even shoots its anchor into “Pluto’s moon” – thereby making it the first media depiction ever of any moon of Pluto (it was also a bit of prescient storytelling, seeing as the episode in question was made in 1974 and Charon wasn’t discovered until 1978).

Keep in mind, these are just the first, initial maps. Most of the data has yet to be downloaded from New Horizons, and there are still whole regions for which any images have yet to be retrieved. So once again, expect more in the coming months.

And don’t be surprised if in the next few weeks there is announced a Setsuna Meioh (Sailor Pluto) crater somewhere on either body…


New Horizons at Pluto

As most everyone knows by now, the NASA/JPL’s New Horizons spacecraft passed by the dwarf planet Pluto six days ago. The images it has sent back are stunningly beautiful.

First off, Pluto itself (all images courtesy of NASA):


Notice anything odd about the surface? As in, what seems to be missing?

Craters. Lots and lots of craters. Thats whats missing.

Consider that Pluto lies at the inner edge of the Kuiper belt, an asteroid field probably larger and more populated than the more familiar asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Consider also that most other non-gaseous outer solar system objects have surfaces that are generally heavily cratered, due to the accumulated impacts of smaller objects over billions and billions of years. The fact that craters are so few here indicates that Pluto’s surface is probably relatively new, only a few hundred million years old. Which means, Pluto is more geologically active than we originally thought. Some process is causing the surface to renew itself, either through active vulcanism or possibly internal heating caused by tidal stress from Pluto and Charon’s orbital dance (remember, Pluto appears to be composed primarily of various ices; it wouldn’t take much heating to periodically melt the surface into a viscous slushie).

Some close up views of Pluto’s surface have also been released.

pluto ice mountains

Those are mountains, and they are composed almost entirely of water ice. They too cannot be more than a few hundred million years old, although it is probable that they are generally older than the smoother surfaces around them.

Moving on to Pluto’s principal moon, Charon:


Again, we’re seeing a general lack of heavy cratering, alhtough the surface here does appear to be more cratered than Charon’s parent planet.

Here’s a good image of the pair, showing once more their relative sizes:

pluto charon

The smaller moons of Pluto also recieved some attention during the flyby, but sadly they were all too far away for detailed images. These are probably the best images we’ll see for the satellites Nix and Hydra:


From what I gather, only about half of the data load that New Horizons recorded has been transmitted back to Earth. In fact, most of the really detailed images of Pluto taken during its closest approach haven’t arrived yet. New Horizons will be transmitting them over the next several weeks, so expect to see more images released in the coming month.

New Horizons will now fly on to another Kuiper Belt object, for an arrival sometime in 2019. There are two objects up for consideration, both of which are much smaller than either Pluto or Charon. A decision as to which of the two objects to target will be made in August, as New Horizons needs to start firing its engines no later than early September.

More details will follow as they become available.

New Horizons at Pluto Progression

As most everyone knows now, the New Horizons space craft is approaching Pluto and is expected to have its closest encounter with the dwarf planet on July 14. Already, New Horizons has revealed more details of Pluto than any other instrument to date.


And here’s Pluto and its largest moon Charon, in a montage with images as late as of July 2:


More images to come!