Science

One of Jupiter's Newly Discovered Moons Is Doing Something Really Weird

One of Jupiter's Newly Discovered Moons Is Doing Something Really Weird

About 40 satellites of Jupiter was discovered by the team of astronomers led by Scott Sheppard in 2001-2004.

But one moon, tentatively dubbed "Valetudo" (green), is an oddball, orbiting with Jupiter's spin but within the retrograde cluster. Not only is it the smallest of Jupiter's 79 known moons-at less than a kilometer in diameter-but it has a very unusual orbit. Just like that, Jupiter has 12 new moons., all of which have been confirmed by other telescopes. 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.

Each of the moons is tiny, no more than a mile or two across. Nine objects, which are in three different groups, are likely the remnants of larger moons that broke apart during collisions.

Being less than 1km in diameter, this moon is more distant and more inclined than those found orbiting in the same direction as Jupiter's rotation (prograde) and would also likely be the planet's smallest.

"Nine of the new moons are part of a distant outer swarm of moons that orbit it in the retrograde, or opposite direction of Jupiter's spin rotation", the astronomers said. They take about two Earth years to complete their circuits.

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When Galileo first peered through his telescope at Jupiter in 1610, he was shocked to see that the planet was not alone-it was orbited by four moons, a fact that upended then-current theories of astronomy. While Earth only has one moon, and some planets, like Mercury and Venus, have none, others have dozens, namely Jupiter and Saturn. The 7 new retrograde moons join 45 other satellites that take 2-3 years to orbit. When moons move all in the same direction, collisions are less likely, like when a bunch of cars are all driving in the same direction on one side of the highway. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust", Dr. Sheppard said. If 12 moons were orbiting a planet, undiscovered until now, imagine the hidden possibilities of what else is lurking out in the great expanse of space.

The team suspect the "oddball" is the last-remaining remnant of a once-larger prograde moon that formed some of the retrogrades during past head-on collisions. "Valetudo" - after the great-granddaughter of the Roman god Jupiter - also known as the goddess of health and hygiene.

Most of the new moons were revealed by the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American, located in Chile, which was recently outfitted with a Dark Energy Camera created to locate faint objects.

In March 2017, Jupiter was in the flawless location to be observed using the Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, which has the Dark Energy Camera and can survey the sky for faint objects. As the team noted in its announcement, "Elucidating the complex influences that shaped a moon's orbital history can teach scientists about our Solar System's early years". They spotted the objects, but didn't immediately know if they were moons or just asteroids passing near the planet.

It will appear as the fourth brightest object in the sky behind the moon, Mars and Venus.


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