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

Researchers discover a dozen new moons of Jupiter

Researchers discover a dozen new moons of Jupiter

And astronomers have just announced the discovery of a dozen more.

Researchers found the new moons thanks to a telescope upgrade. His team at Carnegie, along with collaborators at the University of Hawaii and Northern Arizona University, was hunting for objects far beyond Pluto. "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".

But cosmic serendipity placed the moons in front of their telescope.

Several other telescopes were used to confirm the finds, including the 6.5-meter Magellan telescope at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory, also in Chile. "It was a long process", said Scott Sheppard, who led the effort at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC. Only the two innermost planets in the solar system, Mercury and Venus, have none. Because the planet is so big and bright, researchers surmised that unrecorded moons could be faint, or even obscured, or quite far from the gas giant.

The oddball is thought to be Jupiter's smallest moon, having a diameter of less than a kilometre.

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Sheppard said Jupiter and Saturn may actually have a similar number of moons, with some of the latter's smaller ones not yet detected.

Astronomers have proposed the name "Valetudo" for the oddball moon, after the Roman god Jupiter's great-granddaughter, the goddess of health and hygiene. Instead, scientists will have to wait for a future spacecraft, either flying past Jupiter or orbiting it. It takes them about two Earth years to orbit the planet. It crosses the orbits of other moons, and that's where things might get dicey. But every so often, the planets seem to align (no pun intended) and a new discovery just falls right into their laps.

The moons had not been spotted before because they are tiny. TheyÂre calling one moon an ‘oddball because of its unusual orbit. Aside from the hulking Galilean moons that stretch thousands of miles in diameter, most of Jupiter's moons, including the new twelve, are between a mile and a few tens of miles across. These are part of a group of prograde moons that orbit closer to Jupiter than the retrograde moons do. The outer moons move in the opposite direction - a retrograde orbit. These moons orbit in a counter-clockwise direction in the view above.

This new "oddball" takes about one and a half years to orbit Jupiter. They also include a cluster of moons beyond Callisto, shown in blue in the image above.

Valetudo is something of an oddball. It's out where the outer, retrograde moons are, but it's orbiting Jupiter in the prograde direction, driving into the oncoming traffic. What's more, those orbits intersect. Sheppard's team speculates Valetudo could be a remnant of a collision between one or more moons.

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

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. This matter became part of the planets themselves.

And that raises a question: Does an object less than a mile across deserve to be called a moon?

"It's a lovely result, and it really does highlight the importance of keeping looking out there", Horner said.

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