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Pluto and Charon are fuzzy white dots in this Hubble Space Telescope image.
Distant Pluto and Charon (Hubble Space Telescope)
Pluto: Moons: Charon

Charon is Pluto's only known moon. It really may be more accurate to call Pluto and Charon a double-planet system. At about 1,186 km (737 miles), Charon's diameter is a little more than half of Pluto's. No other planetary moon in our solar system is so close in size to its planet.

The duo are also our solar system's only planet and moon whose gravity has locked them into a mutually synchronous orbit, which keeps each one facing the other with the same side. Many moons - including our own - keep the same hemisphere facing their planet. But this is the only case in which the planet always presents the same hemisphere to its moon. If you stood on one and watched the other, it would appear to hover in place, never moving across the sky.

In Greek mythology, Charon was the boatman who carried the souls of the dead to the underworld - a kingdom that in Roman mythology was ruled by the god, Pluto. The U.S. Naval Observatory's James Christy suggested the name after he found the moon in 1978.

Seven years later, Charon and Pluto began a five-year period of eclipsing each other from Earth's point of view. That was lucky for us, because it enabled scientists to measure the diameters and masses of both objects as each passed in front of the other.

Charon appears to be covered by water ice, which differs from Pluto's surface of frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide. One theory is that the materials that formed Charon were blasted out of Pluto in a collision. That's very similar to the way in which our own moon is thought to have been created.

NASA plans to launch its New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto and Charon in 2006, and it should arrive in 2015, becoming the first spacecraft to visit them. In preparation, the New Horizons project is organizing a search for additional moons of Pluto, using ground-based telescopes and possibly the Hubble Space Telescope.
Just the Facts
Distance from Pluto: 
19,600 km
Equatorial Radius: 
593 km
1,620,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg
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Last Updated: 09.30.03