Through a meticulous combination of photos from two cameras aboard the New Horizons spacecraft, a team of scientists has compiled the most accurate maps yet of Pluto and Charon.
We have previously seen photos and maps of Pluto and Charon, but these maps represent our best current understanding of the surface features and topology of these distant objects of the Kuiper Belt.
Driving past Pluto and Charon on July 14, 2015, New Horizons feverishly captured photos with his two on-board cameras, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). A research team headed by Paul Schenk from the Lunar and Planetary Institute brought these photos together to create a total mosaic of these distant worlds.
It was a time-consuming process and a laborious endeavor in which the researchers had to put together the scattered images like a giant piece of a puzzle. The work was carried out over a period of two years, as the data from New Horizons slowly dripped back to earth.
"It has been quite an effort to align the cards and make them accurate," said Schenk Gizmodo. "Part of the problem is that we did not get all the data all at once – New Horizons sent over a slow radio link so we got about three or four pictures at the same time, which meant we had to completely revise our data every few weeks.
Schenk's team not only created global maps, but also created topographic maps of Pluto and Charon by analyzing stereo images of both cameras
"What impressed me most was the variety of features that can be seen on Pluto and Charon," said Schenk. "We saw things that we had no idea that they would be there – like mountains six miles long and terrain that seemed to be shaped by glaciers. These features were very similar to earth, but they were all made from methane and nitrogen ice.
The resulting global imagery and topography maps were archived in NASA's Planetary Data System and will soon be made public, with details of this research now available in the latest edition of the science magazine Icarus (new maps of Pluto and new maps The maps provide the best resolution we have for any geological area and show the rich rug of surface features on both Pluto and Charon.
Take, for example, Tenzing Montes, a stunning mountain range on Pluto Located on the southwestern edge of Sputnik Planitia – a vast plain made up of frozen nitrogen – Berg has steep cliffs, some of which reach 40 degrees or more, and is about 6 km high, comparable to Alaska's Mount Denali or Tanzania Kilimanjaro: Tenzing Montes is filled with solid water ice so that it can reach its heights can hold. Other ice on Pluto, such as methane and nitrogen, would be too weak for such a high structure to collapse.
The topographical maps also paint a picture of Sputnik Planitia. Its expansive inland ice is 1.5 miles (2.5 miles) thick on average, and its outer edges are very deep – about 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) below Pluto's "sea level."
As far as Charon is concerned, it is a moon of topographic extremes. This moon has huge valleys near the North Pole, some of which are 14km long, which is deeper than the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Charon also has an equatorial trough, which extends upwards at an altitude of 8 km.
"These and other features make Charon one of the most robust medium-sized icy satellites except Saturn's high-contrast Iapetus moon "said Ross Beyer, a researcher at the SETI Institute in California and co-author of the new study, in a statement.
Important, these maps are only partially complete. New Horizons only managed to reproduce about three quarters of the surface of Pluto and Charon. A good portion is still a secret. All the better reason to launch another probe into the Kuiper Belt.