By Jove! Astroboffins spot 12 new spanking moons around Jupiter

By Jove! Astroboffins spot 12 new spanking moons around Jupiter

Astronomers searching for a planet beyond Pluto discovered instead a dozen new moons orbiting Jupiter.

While hunting for the proposed Planet Nine, a massive planet that some believe could lie beyond Pluto, a team of scientists, led by Scott Sheppard from the Carnegie Institution for Science, found the 12 moons orbiting Jupiter. After verification, they are being reported today by the International Astronomical Union, based in Paris.

"We're looking for new possible planets and dwarf planets in our solar system, just seeing what is out there", Sheppard said. Unfortunately, they couldn't find the hypothesized planet using the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American in Chile, but they did manage to unearth a treasure trove of new satellites around our largest planet.

The inner moons take about a year to circle Jupiter, while the outer moons take twice as long.

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It also "has an orbit like no other known Jovian moon" and is "likely Jupiter's smallest known moon", he added.

The final discovery is classified as an "oddball" as it has an orbit unlike any other Jovian moon. This means it crosses paths with the outer retrograde moons and could collide with them. They then used telescopes in Chile, Arizona, and Hawaii to confirm the existence of the moons and their orbits around Jupiter, a process that required many follow-up observations over the past year.

With 67 other known moons flying around Jupiter, there's already a good amount of traffic around the gas planet, as shown in the illustration above. It orbits Jupiter in and amongst where the retrograde moons reside, however, it follows a highly risky prograde orbit as it does so. By contrast, retrograde moons were probably objects that once were wandering around the solar system and got snared by Jupiter's gravity.

When you're scanning space for a distant planet, that's potentially lurking at the far edges of our solar system, it certainly pays off to keep an eye on what's going on a little closer to home!

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For example, the discovery that the smallest moons in Jupiter's various orbital groups are still abundant suggests the collisions that created them occurred after the era of planet formation, when the Sun was still surrounded by a rotating disk of gas and dust from which the planets were born. Each is only one to three kilometres wide, and thus would be very hard to spot using most telescopes. But the newly discovered moons are tiny, ranging from 1 to 3 kilometers in diameter.

Galileo detected Jupiter's four largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto in 1610.

This new "oddball" takes about one and a half years to orbit Jupiter. "This is an unstable situation", continued Sheppard. Of the 12 latest moons to join Jupiter's family, it's a maverick whose odd orbit may give astronomers crucial insights to understanding how the moons of Jupiter came to be. In the meantime, they're waiting for the IAU to formally accept "Valetudo" as the name for the oddball moon. "These objects are probably some intermediate-type composition, half-rock and half-ice, something like that".

In the meantime, "we have to speculate about what they [the new moons] are made of", Sheppard said.

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"What astonishes me about these moons is that they're the remnants of what the planet formed from", he said.

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