Crater Morphologies on Pluto and Charon: Anticipating New Horizons
Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Impact craters are among the few geologic features we have some confidence will be present in the Pluto/Charon system. Crater morphologies are important as tracers of thermal history (through the mechanism of viscous relaxation), and can be used to probe through icy crusts (in terms of excavating deeper layers as on Ganymede or penetrating through floating ice shells as on Europa). New Horizons will have the opportunity to examine crater morphologies on Pluto to resolutions <100 meters and on Charon to ~250 meters over significant areas. Stereo-derived topography maps are anticipated over 20-35% of each body. The first task will be to place the observed craters (assuming they are not deeply eroded) into Solar System context. Crater morphology on icy satellites is controlled primarily by surface gravity. Charon has similar surface gravity to the icy Saturnian satellites and we expect craters on Charon to resemble those seen by Cassini, where the dominant landform will be prominent central peaks. Pluto surface gravity is midway between Ganymede and Rhea. Triton, with similar surface gravity and internal composition to Pluto, is of no help due to the paucity of resolved craters there. This opens the possibility of observing landforms seen on Ganymede, such as central dome craters, palimpsests and perhaps even a multiring basin or two, albeit at larger diameters than we would see on Ganymede. Several issues complicate our rosy picture. A key unresolved concern is that impact velocities in the Pluto system are only a few km/s, in the low end of the hypervelocity range. Numerical models imply possible differences during excavation, producing deeper simple craters than on the icy satellites. Impacts occurring at velocities well below the mean (<< 2km/s) might produce shallower craters, complicating the issue further. Whether such differences are real and are significant enough to be detected in our anticipated topographic data sets is unclear. Any viscous relaxation (driven by internal or modest tidal heating) or mass wasting erosion (by volatile redistribution) will also work to reduce crater depths on Pluto in different ways, but cratering onto the likely cold interior of Charon may provide a reference standard by which to evaluate modified craters on Pluto.