Who would have thought that Pluto is a graffiti artist, spray-painting one of its moons, Charon, with a reddish stain that covers an area the size of New Mexico?
Charon’s polar coloring comes from Pluto itself – methane gas that escapes from Pluto’s atmosphere becomes “trapped” by the moon’s gravity and freezes to the cold, icy surface at the moon’s pole. This is followed by chemical processing by ultraviolet light from the sun that transforms the methane into reddish organic materials called tholins.
In June 2015, when the cameras on the approaching New Horizons spacecraft first spotted the large reddish polar region on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, mission scientists knew two things: they’d never seen anything like it elsewhere in our solar system, and they couldn’t wait to get the story behind it. The team has now combined analyses from detailed Charon images obtained by New Horizons with computer models of how ice evolves on Charon’s poles.
New Horizons captured this enhanced color view of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, just before closest approach on July 14, 2015.
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