New Horizons image of Neptune Moon Charon

NASA's New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon just before the spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute | More about this image

The largest of Pluto's five moons, Charon, was discovered in June 1978 by James Christy and Robert Harrington at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona – about six miles from where Pluto was discovered at the Lowell Observatory. They weren't even looking for moons. They were trying to refine Pluto's orbit around the Sun.

James Christy in 2018 holding an old image of Charon.
Forty years after his important discovery, Jim Christy holds two of the telescope images he used to spot Pluto’s large moon, Charon, in June 1978. A close-up photo of Charon, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft during its July 2015 flyby, is displayed on his computer screen. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Art Howard/GHSPi

Discovery

Charon was discovered in 1978 when astronomer James Christy noticed images of Pluto were strangely elongated. The blob seemed to move around Pluto. The direction of elongation cycled back and forth over 6.39 days – Pluto's rotation period. Searching through their archives of Pluto images taken years before, Christy found more cases where Pluto appeared elongated. Additional images confirmed he had discovered the first known moon of Pluto.

Overview

At half the size of Pluto, Charon is the largest of Pluto's five moons and the largest known satellite relative to its parent body. Pluto-Charon is our solar system's only known double planetary system. The same surfaces of Charon and Pluto always face each other, a phenomenon called mutual tidal locking. Charon orbits Pluto every 6.4 Earth days.

In Depth

Charon is almost half the size of Pluto. The moon is so big that Pluto and Charon are sometimes referred to as a double dwarf planet system. The distance between them is 12,200 miles (19,640 km).

The Hubble Space Telescope photographed Pluto and Charon in 1994 when Pluto was about 30 Astronomical Units (AU) from Earth. (One AU is the distance from the Sun to Earth's orbit, which is about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers). These photos showed that Charon is more neutral grey than Pluto (which has a red tinge), indicating that they have different surface compositions and structures.

Charon's orbit around Pluto takes 6.4 Earth days, and one Pluto rotation (a Pluto day) takes 6.4 Earth days. Charon neither rises nor sets, but hovers over the same spot on Pluto's surface, and the same side of Charon always faces Pluto – this is called tidal locking. Compared with most of the planets and moons, the Pluto-Charon system is tipped on its side, like Uranus. Pluto's rotation is retrograde: it rotates backward, from east to west (Uranus and Venus also have retrograde rotations).

A 3D model of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. Credit: NASA Visualization Technology Applications and Development (VTAD) › Download Options

How Charon got its Name

Christy proposed the name Charon after the mythological ferryman who carried souls across the river Acheron, one of the five mythical rivers that surrounded Pluto's underworld. Apart from the mythological connection for this name, Christy chose it because the first four letters also matched the name of his wife, Charlene.

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