Sci-tech

One ‘Oddball’ Among 12 Newfound Moons Discovered Orbiting Jupiter

One ‘Oddball’ Among 12 Newfound Moons Discovered Orbiting Jupiter

Famed astronomer Galileo Galilei discovered the first four moons of Jupiter way back in the early 1600s. Those eleven moons are probably remnants of larger bodies that got broken up in collisions.

The astronomers were not intentionally searching for new Jovian moons when they began observing. The moons are small compared to our own and compared to others that orbit Jupiter, with diameters ranging between less than a mile and two miles wide. After their observations and more than a year of follow-ups and confirmations, they announced this week that they found 12 new moons.

Jupiter's neighborhood was always crowded, but the discovery of 12 new moons around the giant planet makes it more intriguing. Nine of them, found in the most distant orbits of Jupiter, are in three distinct groups, taking around two Earth years to orbit Jupiter. It's believed these moons are the remnants of larger space rocks that broke apart during collisions with asteroids, comets or other moons.

Outside the orbits of the prograde moons is the largest group, the retrograde moons, which orbit around Jupiter in the opposite direction to the planet's spin.

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The current team of astronomers did not set out to find new moons of Jupiter, but was scanning the skies for planets beyond Pluto when the moons fell into the path of their telescope. While Earth only has one moon, and some planets, like Mercury and Venus, have none, others have dozens, namely Jupiter and Saturn.

"This simulation takes a few months to run and we expect the answer is between about 100 million years and 1 billion years, which is long in human time but not all that long in astronomical time", Sheppard said. Nine others orbit with Jupiter's outer retrograde moons in the opposite direction. "It is moving prograde while all the other objects at a similar distance from Jupiter are moving retrograde".

"It's basically driving down the highway in the wrong direction", Sheppard said. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust", Dr. Sheppard said.

It is possible the various orbital moon groupings we see today were formed in the distant past through this exact mechanism. This unusual moon could have come from a stray comet trapped by Jupiter's gravitational pull and destroyed long ago by collisions with the planet's retrograde moons.

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But the discovery might be short-lived because Valetudo faces destruction in head-on collisions. "Valetudo" - after the great-granddaughter of the Roman god Jupiter - also known as the goddess of health and hygiene.

All of the newly discovered moons are small and are estimated to be no more than 3 kilometers across.

Using the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American in Chile, with its highly-sensitive Dark Energy Camera, however, gave the team a distinct advantage. We already have a classification for dwarf planets. Nine of these moons are from a previously discovered cluster of moons that are in what astronomers call a retrograde orbit. That means the revolve around Jupiter opposite from the planet's rotation. Valetudo is the goddess of health and hygiene, which can not help with this little oddball moon's self-confidence.

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