Published: Wed, July 18, 2018
Science | By Cecil Little

Astronomers Serendipitously Discover 12 Moons Around Jupiter

By this latest count, our solar system's largest planet now has 79 moons, more than any other. They knew that the solar system's largest planet was going to be bright and hanging in the sky all night.

Sheppard said these moons were probably objects that formed near Jupiter during the early days of the solar system and were "captured" by the planet's strong gravitational pull.

"Jupiter just happened to be in the sky near the search fields where we were looking for extremely distant Solar System objects, so we were serendipitously able to look for new moons around Jupiter while at the same time looking for planets at the fringes of our Solar System", said Sheppard. While the scientists' planet hunt has so far come up dry, the team, using the recently upgraded Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, also had Jupiter in view, leading to the discovery. "By looking at these outer moons", he said, "we can get an insight into what the objects were like that ended up forming the planets we see today".

"It's also likely Jupiter's smallest known moon, being less than one kilometre in diameter".

"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. "We think these moons are an intermediate type of object, half-rock and half-ice".

Most of the moons are the size of large asteroids, measuring between one and three kilometers (about two-thirds of a mile to two miles) in diameter.

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The last moon is fittingly weird, considering how freakish Jupiter is.

All the moons may be fragments that broke apart when their larger, parent cosmic bodies collided. "What these other objects were has been a mystery".

The new moons, pictured as circles above, were discovered previous year by a team of astronomers.

The remaining moon is less than a kilometer across, further out than the two conventional moons and has a 1.5-year orbit-and the orbit is inclined.

Two of them are pretty straightforward.

In addition to these two groups, Jupiter has "regular" satellites, or moons with almost circular orbits.

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But the researchers realized that Jupiter happened to be in a spot that allowed them to examine the area around the gas giant for any unknown natural satellites.

But the last moon is a weird one. Valetudo is the name of Jupiter's great-granddaughter and a Roman goddess of health and hygiene, so it fits the bill.

The 2 new regular prograde moons join 15 other previously discovered prograde satellites that typically orbit Jupiter in about an Earth year or less. Sheppard's team speculates Valetudo could be a remnant of a collision between one or more moons. If a moon circles in the same direction as a planet's rotation, that moon's orbit is called prograde.

According to Horner, if Valetudo had formed early on, it would have been slowed by the gas and dust present at the formation of Jupiter, and fallen into the planet. Since they are still around, now, that means they formed after that gas and dust had been swept away by the solar wind. TheyÂre calling one moon an ‘oddball because of its unusual orbit. But every so often, the planets seem to align (no pun intended) and a new discovery just falls right into their laps.

"A full paper will likely be written after these simulations are done in a few months".

The final discovery is classified as an "oddball" as it has an orbit unlike any other Jovian moon.

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