New Moons Discovered for Jupiter, Including One 'Oddball'

Jul 19, 2018, 01:25
New Moons Discovered for Jupiter, Including One 'Oddball'

They were first spotted a year ago by a team of astronomers originally on the hunt for the elusive Planet Nine, a hypothetical body speculated to exist beyond Neptune.

The moonlets mostly follow Jupiter's known patterns: Located far beyond the planet's large primary moons (purple), two of the new moonlets belong to a grouping (blue) that spins in the same direction as the planet, all of which are believed to be the fragments of one large shattered moon.

In 2014, this same team found the object with the most-distant known orbit in our Solar System and was the first to realize that an unknown massive planet at the fringes of our Solar System, far beyond Pluto, could explain the similarity of the orbits of several small extremely distant objects. Those eleven moons are probably remnants of larger bodies that got broken up in collisions. Some of the outer moons, on the other hand, are retrograde moons, which orbit in the opposite direction.

Tentatively named Valetudo, after the Roman goddess of health and cleanliness, and great-granddaughter of Jupiter, the moon is more distant and more inclined than the group of inner prograde moons. As such, the orbit crosses those of the outer retrograde moons, raising the possibility of a possible head-on collision at some point in the future.

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"It's basically driving down the highway in the wrong direction", Sheppard said. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust".

The announcement of the new moons was published Tuesday in the International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Electronic Circular. The oddball also orbits in prograde, but at a greater distance than the other prograde moons. That means the revolve around Jupiter opposite from the planet's rotation.

After the team of scientists initially saw the moons via a telescope at Chile's Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, at least four other telescopes were used to verify the moons. When Jupiter and the other giant planets were forming, the solar system was a disk and gas and dust that surrounded the infant Sun. It takes them about two Earth years to orbit the planet.

This interest in finding new moons around Jupiter wasn't just a spur of the moment decision for Sheppard. If there were previously undiscovered moons in far-flung orbits around Jupiter, they might spot them, too. The smallest moon is just over a half-mile across, while the largest is about three miles in diameter.

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Two of the newly discovered satellites orbit with a group that are in between the outer group and the Galilean moons. The orbits of 9 other small Jovian moons are yet unknown.

Scientists were looking for objects on the fringes of the solar system previous year when they pointed their telescopes close to Jupiter's backyard, according to Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institute for Science in Washington. Jupiter's strong gravity may also have disrupted the orbits of nascent planets, potentially even hurling them into interstellar space. The research team thinks Valetudo could be a leftover chunk from a once-larger moon that rammed into another past Jovian satellite, creating the many smaller objects that exist today.

The moons had not been spotted before because they are tiny. The telescope recently was upgraded with the Dark Energy Camera, making it a powerful tool for surveying the night sky for faint objects.

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