NASA to Look For Ancient Oceans on Pluto's Moon Charon

Jun 14, 2014 07:36 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

NASA has announced that its New Horizons spacecraft will visit Pluto in July 2015 to help scientists look for evidence of oceans on Pluto's moon.

If the surface of the moon, called Charon, is cracked, then its analysis will reveal if the moon had a sub-surface ocean in the past, according to NASA.

Pluto is approximately 29 times farther than Earth and has a temperature around 380 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (or 229 degrees Celsius.)

NASA believes moons of planets like Saturn and Jupiter are in a gravitational tug-of-war, which keeps Europa, Enceladus and even Charon in a slight elliptical orbit. 

The eccentric tides raise daily tides on the surface of the moon, according to NASA. Scientists believe that this tidal flexing could keep the interiors warm and possibly allow underground water to exist.

"Our model predicts different fracture patterns on the surface of Charon depending on the thickness of its surface ice, the structure of the moon's interior and how easily it deforms, and how its orbit evolved," said Alyssa Rhoden of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Scientists believe that Charon could have had liquid oceans in the past and that cracks on the surface of the moon could reveal details about the oceans.

"By comparing the actual New Horizons observations of Charon to the various predictions, we can see what fits best and discover if Charon could have had a subsurface ocean in its past, driven by high eccentricity," Rhoden said in a news release.

Finding water wouldn't mean that Charon could support life however. Despite the fact that water is essential for life, biological organisms also need the right combination of chemical and energy source, according to a report by NBC News.

Research was published in the journal Icarus.

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