This image shows Pluto (lower left) and its large moon Charon (upper right). Notice how large Charon is compared to Pluto, and how close the moon is to the planet. This image was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on February 21, 1994.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy Dr. R. Albrecht (ESA/ESO Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility) and NASA.

Charon - largest moon of Pluto

Charon is by far the largest of Pluto's known moons. Charon was discovered by the American astronomer James Christy on June 22, 1978, while working at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Charon is so large compared to Pluto that the pair are often referred to as a "binary planet" (double planet). The radius of Charon is 603.6 km (375 miles), which is about half that of Pluto. The moon also orbits very close to the planet, just over 1/20th the distance between Earth and the Moon. Charon circles Pluto once every 6.4 days at a distance of 19,571 km (12,161 miles). Like Earth's moon, Charon rotates exactly once per orbit, so the same side of the moon always faces the planet. Unlike the Earth-Moon system, this "orbital lock" phenomenon also extends to Pluto; Pluto's day is exactly as long as the orbital period of Charon. This means that Charon is always in the sky when viewed from one hemisphere of Pluto, while an observer standing on the other side of Pluto would never see Charon!

Some astronomers think Charon may have formed in a way similar to the process that created Earth's moon. They think a large object slammed into Pluto early in its history, and that the debris from this collision coalesced to form the moon. Other astronomers disagree, citing the nearly identical densities of Pluto and Charon as evidence which conflicts with this formation theory. According to the theory, Charon should be less dense than Pluto, since it should be made up of material from the outer layers of the planet and not from the denser material at the planet's core. Charon is composed of rock and ice; a little less than 2/3rds rock and slightly more than 1/3rd ice.

Charon is named after a character from Greek mythology. Charon was the ferryman of the dead, who conveyed the recently deceased across a river into the underworld. Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, was called Pluto in Roman mythology. Although the "ch" in the name Charon is pronounced like a "k" in Greek, most astronomers pronounce the moon's name with a "sh" sound at the start. That is because James Christy, the discoverer of Charon, chose to pronounce it that way in honor of his wife Charlene.

Last modified January 23, 2006 by Randy Russell.

You might also be interested in:

Cool It! Game

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

The Moons of Pluto

Pluto has // Call the moon count function defined in the document head print_moon_count('pluto'); known moons. Charon, the largest by far, was discovered in 1978 by the American astronomer James Christy....more


Pluto is a frigid ball of ice and rock that orbits far from the Sun on the frozen fringes of our Solar System. Considered a planet, though a rather odd one, from its discovery in 1930 until 2006, it was...more

Pluto & Charon, a binary planet

Of all the planets and moons in the solar system, Pluto and Charon are the two which resemble each other the most closely. They are almost the same size, and they are very close together. They are so...more

Pluto's Interior

The diagram to the left shows a cutaway of the possible interior structure of Pluto. The composition of Pluto is mostly ice, therefore there is probably a small core of some rocky material buried inside,...more

Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNO)

There are many icy and rocky planetoids on the outer edge of our Solar System. As a group, all bodies that orbit, on average, further from the Sun than the 8th planet Neptune are called Trans-Neptunian...more

Questions to answer about Pluto

Pluto is so far away, and has never been explored. Questions to answer about Pluto include the following: What are the geologic features of the surface. (pictures of the surface) If there are bare spots,...more

An Overview of Pluto's Atmosphere

It may seem hard to believe that Pluto could have an atmosphere because it is so cold at 39 AU, where Pluto resides, but it does. Because there are times when Pluto is closer to the sun than is Neptune...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA