Published: Tue, July 17, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

Ten new moons-including one 'oddball'-discovered around Jupiter

Ten new moons-including one 'oddball'-discovered around Jupiter

Eleven are "normal" moons, with nine of them part of a distant outer swarm that orbit in the retrograde, meaning they move in the opposite direction to Jupiter's spin.

Astronomers searching for a planet beyond Pluto discovered instead a dozen new moons orbiting Jupiter.

The astronomers were looking for objects on the fringes of the solar system when they spotted the Jupiter moons. This putative planet is now sometimes popularly called Planet X or Planet Nine.

Because of how many observations it takes to determine an object in space is actually in orbit around Jupiter, it took about a year to confirm that these were, indeed, new Jovian moons.

The astronomers do not know the composition of the dozen newly identified moons.

The survey looked for objects one kilometre and larger, so there is a chance that there are other, smaller "moonlets" in orbit around the giant Jupiter. They take about two Earth years to complete their circuits. This gave the team a unique opportunity to search for new moons around Jupiter in addition to objects located past Pluto, according to the statement. These regular satellites consist of an inner group of four moons that orbit very closely to the planet and a main group of four Galilean moons that are Jupiter's largest moons. This cosmic clique is thought to be fragments of a single larger moon that broke apart.

Sheppard did not set out to detect new moons.

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This moon, now called Valetudo, moves in a prograde motion, though it is slightly inclined compared to the orbits of the other moons. "Maybe there will have to be a new definition for the smaller moons". These all travel in retrograde, or the opposite of Jupiter's rotation, while two more, also though to be moon remnants, travel in prograde. It has a prograde orbit at a distance where the rest of Jupiter's moons have retrograde orbits.

As a result, head on collisions are much more likely to occur between this "oddball" prograde moon and its retrograde cousins moving in opposite directions. "This is an unstable situation", continued Sheppard. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust". The moon can be seen moving relative to the steady state background of distant stars.

This image shows the different groupings of moons orbiting Jupiter, with the newly discovered moons displayed in bold. These are part of a group of prograde moons that orbit closer to Jupiter than the retrograde moons do.

Elucidating the complex influences that shaped a moon's orbital history can teach scientists about our Solar System's early years. The irregular satellites didn't form around Jupiter in the same way that the planets formed around the Sun, or the regular satellites around Jupiter, from a flat disc in a prograde orbit. If these raw materials had still been present when Jupiter's first generation of moons collided to form its current clustered groupings of moons, the drag exerted by any remaining gas and dust on the smaller moons would have been sufficient to cause them to spiral inwards toward Jupiter. They found 12, two of which were announced a year ago. The telescope recently was upgraded with the Dark Energy Camera, making it a powerful tool for surveying the night sky for faint objects.

Using the Blanco four-metre telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American in Chile - which had been recently fitted with a new and highly sensitive instrument called the "Dark Energy Camera", which is about the size of a small auto - they detected objects that seemed to be moving against the background stars. Bob Jacobson and Marina Brozovic at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed the calculated orbit of the unusual oddball moon in 2017 in order to double check its location prediction during the 2018 recovery observations in order to make sure the new interesting moon was not lost.

"This is really cool and really exciting", astronomer Jonti Horner of the University of Southern Queensland, who was not involved in the research, told ScienceAlert.

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