Astronomers Discover 12 New Moons Around Jupiter

Cesar Mills
July 18, 2018

"It probably has collided with them over time", Sheppard said. His team at Carnegie, along with collaborators at the University of Hawaii and Northern Arizona University, was hunting for objects far beyond Pluto. Sheppard, who is broadly interested in the formation of solar systems and has been involved in the discovery of 48 of Jupiter's known moons, realized this was the flawless opportunity to advance two separate research goals with the same telescope data. They are about one to two kilometers (miles) across, said astronomer Gareth Williams of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center. The scientists embarked on a yearlong process that involved several observations to confirm the moons' existence, according to a Carnegie Institution for Science press release.

It has an angled prograde orbit that takes about a year and a half to complete.

Astronomers think retrograde moons have a different origin story from prograde moons, which travel in the same direction that their planet rotates. The new moons were found in three distinct clusters and are thought to be debris left over when three larger bodies were broken apart in earlier collisions.

Two of the newly discovered satellites orbit with a group that are in between the outer group and the Galilean moons.

Nine of the new moons are in a group of more distant moons in prograde orbits.

Before Sheppard's team conducted their survey, there were 69 known Jovian moons, but there's always been reason to believe there are quite a few more. Those moons orbit close to Jupiter and travel in the same direction as the planet spins.

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This new "oddball" moon is more distant and more inclined than the prograde group of moons and takes about one and a half years to orbit Jupiter.

The so-called "oddball" has such a unique orbit that it is at risk of smashing into the other moons - a cosmic collision that could risk wiping the space rocks out. "Essentially, it's going to be like a bug in the windshield", says Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

A head-on collision between two moons would "grind the objects down to dust", he added. Maybe we need something similar for tiny moons. Sheppard's girlfriend came up with a name for it: Valetudo, the great-granddaughter of the Roman god Jupiter. They had set their sights on the outer solar system and were looking for more evidence of the elusive Planet Nine, a predicted but as yet unobserved large outer solar system planet.

The moons were first discovered during the search for Planet X, the hunt for a massive planet beyond Pluto. This is not unusual - in fact, most of Jupiter's known moons are retrograde, and are thought to be asteroids or comets originally formed near the gas giant and captured when they got too close. Since they are still around, now, that means they formed after that gas and dust had been swept away by the solar wind.

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. That makes it a powerful tool for surveying the night sky in search of faint objects. Lines point to Valetudo, the newly discovered "oddball" moon.

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