Astronomers Have Discovered a Dozen New Moons Circling Jupiter

It's getting more crowded around Jupiter. Twelve, to be exact. Maybe 100 or more of the really small ones.

On Tuesday, the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center published the orbits for 12 newfound Jovian moons - bringing Jupiter's total to 79 moons, said Scott Sheppard, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in D.C. A team of astronomers is reporting the discovery of a dozen new moons circling the giant gas planet. Several telescopes were used to confirm the finds, including the 6.5-meter Magellan telescope at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory in Chile; the 4-meter Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory Arizona (thanks to Audrey Thirouin, Nick Moskovitz and Maxime Devogele); the 8-meter Subaru Telescope and the Univserity of Hawaii 2.2 meter telescope (thanks to Dave Tholen and Dora Fohring at the University of Hawaii); and 8-meter Gemini Telescope in Hawaii (thanks to Director's Discretionary Time to recover Valetudo). Observations were partly obtained at CTIO, NOAO, which are operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, under contract with the NSF. These two newly discovered moons take a little less than a year to travel around Jupiter. The moon can be seen moving relative to the steady state background of distant stars. Jupiter is not in the frame, but off to the upper left.

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.

They were using a more powerful telescope than ever before, allowing the team to peer in at higher resolutions, across a wider field of view than other observations in the past.

Jupiter's moons range in size from shrimpy satellites to whopping space hulks. These satellites are part of a large group of moons that orbit in retrograde far from Jupiter. There are also small interior moons that orbit in the same direction as Jupiter, which are referred to as prograde moons. "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".

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Finally, there are retrograde moons. They found 12, two of which were announced past year. The stage is set, in other words, for possible moon-moon collisions.

As a result, head-on collisions are much more likely to occur between the "oddball" prograde and the retrograde moons, which are moving in opposite directions. It has an orbit like no other known Jovian moon.

Most of the prograde moons orbit much closer to the planet than the retrograde moons do.

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. "Thus head-on collisions are likely". "If one did happen, we would be able to detect it from Earth, but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon".

"Over a human lifetime, it doesn't happen. But over the age of the solar system, a hundred million or billions of years, it looks like it's very likely that Valetudo will collide with one of these retrograde objects", Sheppard said.

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Interestingly, the astronomers believe that this is what happened in the past.

"With the discovery of Valetudo, it seems the collisions that broke apart the retrograde moons were between other prograde Jupiter moons, like Valetudo", Sheppard told ScienceAlert.

The findings are another piece of the puzzle of the formation of our solar system.

If they had formed earlier, the influence of gas and dust would have created drag and caused them to spiral inward to the planet, lost forever.

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.

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And that raises a question: Does an object less than a mile across deserve to be called a moon? "That's unknown, but there are surely smaller fragments".

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