The Dance of Gravity: Pluto and Charon

The recent news as well as the images from NASA’s New Horizons mission has shown us a lot of aspects of Pluto and its “family” which were previously obscured from reality. These include beautiful information related to the terrain and topography of Pluto’s surface, its predicted internal seismological activity and the relationship it shares with the five moons that it has adorned around itself. These moons are Charon, Styx, Nix, Hydra and Kerberos. Out of these, the most intimate relationship is between Pluto and its moon Charon.


Tripped Out Fact: Pluto and Charon are too close to be considered as separate planetary entities due to the fact that the sizes of the planets are not too varied or vastly different. According to estimates, Charon is 750 miles across while the diameter of Pluto is 1,473 miles.

Tripped Out Fact: The distance between Pluto and Charon is approximately 12,200 miles,  which is much lesser in perspective where Earth and Moon are considered, which is about 238,900 miles in all.

These estimates point very closely to the aspect that Pluto and Charon are in fact one planetary system, also known as a binary planet system. This means that Pluto and Charon are essentially behaving like one planet around which the other moons, namely Styx, Nix, Hydra and Kerberos revolve. The sizes of the two celestial bodies point to the fact that their center of mass is essentially a “sphere” in the space between the two planetary entities.

Tripped Out Fact: This essentially means that Pluto and Charon are revolving around each other in an almost perfectly harmonious but wobbly dance. This spiraling dance is the one which essentially drives the binary dwarf system around the sun.

If observed from an appropriate distance (pun intended) Pluto and Charon would be seen as moving to a incomprehensible rhythm as both of them pull and push each other in a wobbly dance of harmony. If seen from a far greater distance (scaling out to a point in space where you can see the solar system as if from the top of a building) you will observe that this wobbly dance of gravitational tugging and pushing is part of a larger dance around the sun, the dance of gravity between these two cosmic entities being the force that essentially drives the whole binary system and its moons around the sun.

Tripped Out Fact: Binary systems are formed when a huge piece of a planet is “siphoned” off by extra-planetary forces like meteor crashes and other cataclysmic events. The part of the planet which has been siphoned off starts revolving around the main body which it was a part of before. The revolutions eventually give rise to a celestial body, which is usually a moon. Our moon was also a part of the Earth once on the cosmic calendar.

The relationship as well as the complimentary aspect between Pluto and Charon is striking. Pluto has an ice-covered surface with a rocky interior while Charon has a rocky exterior with lot of deep chasms and mountain ranges. There have also been noted signs of internal activity on Charon such as seismological disturbances and tectonic movements. These signs, accompanied by the lack of prominent or large number of meteor craters on Charon, point to the fact that it is a fairly young celestial body.

There is no apparent atmosphere on Charon as per the reports being sent by Voyager 2. An important aspect that has been observed in the case of this dwarf planetary system is the fact that Pluto has been constantly emitting nitrogen from its surface, which is eventually finding its way on to Charon’s surface due to the gravity exhibited between the two bodies. This points to a seemingly subtle analogy wherein Pluto is slowly nourishing and building up Charon which appears to be a young celestial body. The synchronicity between Pluto and Charon, the dance that drives them and the relationship between them is certainly the epic of this modern age.

Further Tripping…

Check out the young and youthful terrain of Charon

Check out some of the important updates on the Pluto fly-by

About Ashwin Ramesh

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