On Thursday, NASA released the most detailed images yet of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon.
The photos — taken by the New Horizons spacecraft — reveal a canyon system that stretches a thousand miles across the face of the moon and likely extends to its far side. Where researchers expected simple craters, they’ve instead found mountains, landslides and color variations.
“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” said Ross Beyer, a scientist with the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center.
The findings also lead the research team to believe some of those features might have been caused by cryovolcanism — cold volcanic activity — related to a frozen internal ocean.
New Horizons, which is about the size of a piano and weighs more than 1,000 pounds — was launched in January 2006, and in December 2011 it became the closest spacecraft to Pluto. Still, the craft didn’t begin its first close approach to the dwarf planet until April. It’s currently 3.1 billion miles from Earth.
According to the New Horizons research team, more high-resolution images and data are still to come.
Photos courtesy of NASA/Johns Hopkins University of Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.