Global topographic maps of Pluto and Charon

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Using data and images from New Horizons scientists have now produced the first global topographic maps of Pluto and Charon.

Obviously, the resolution for the maps of both planets is very uneven, since the spacecraft only saw part of each planet at high resolution during its fly-by. Nonetheless, they note some of the more interesting details revealed:

These maps reveal a rich variety of landforms on both Pluto and Charon. The topographic maps confirm that the highest known mountains on Pluto are the Tenzing Montes range, which formed along the southwestern margins of the frozen nitrogen ice sheet of Sputnik Planitia. These steep-sided icy peaks have slopes of 40° or more and rise several kilometers above the floor of Sputnik Planitia. The highest peak rises approximately 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) above the base of the range, comparable to base-to-crest heights of Denali in Alaska, and Kilimanjaro in Kenya. Pluto’s mountains must be composed of stiff water ice in order to maintain their heights, as the more volatile ices observed on Pluto, including methane and nitrogen ice, would be too weak and the mountains would collapse.

The topographic maps also reveal large-scale features that are not obvious in the global mosaic map. The ice sheet within the 1000-kilometer (625-mile) wide Sputnik Planitia is on average 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) deep while the outer edges of the ice sheet lie an even deeper 3.5 km (or 2.2. miles) below Pluto’s mean elevation, or ‘sea level’ surface. While most of the ice sheet is relatively flat, these outer edges of Sputnik Planitia are the lowest known areas on Pluto, all features that are evident only in the stereo images and elevation maps. The topographic maps also reveal the existence of a global-scale deeply eroded ridge-and-trough system more than 3000 kilometers (or 1864 miles) long, trending from north-to-south near the western edge of Sputnik Planitia. This feature is the longest known on Pluto and indicates that extensive fracturing occurred in the distant past. Why such fracturing occurred only along this linear band is not well understood.

On Charon the topographic maps also reveal deep depressions near the north pole that are ~14 kilometers (8.7 miles) deep, deeper than the Marianas Trench on Earth. The equatorial troughs that form the boundary between the northern and southern plains on Charon also feature high relief of ~8 kilometers. The mapping of fractured northern terrains and tilted crustal blocks along this boundary could be due to cryovolcanic resurfacing, perhaps triggered by the foundering of large crustal blocks into the deep interior of Charon. The rugged relief also indicates that Charon retains much of its original topography caused by its history of fracturing and surface disruption.

These maps are obviously only our first stab at mapping both planets. We will need orbiters around both to truly detail their surface features.


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