Astronomers accidentally discovered 12 more moons of Jupiter, including an 'oddball'

Federico Mansilla
Julio 18, 2018

More than 400 years later, astronomers are still finding moons orbiting the solar system's largest planet.

Astronomers have found 12 previously unknown moons circling Jupiter, including one "oddball" whose days are numbered, due to its highly unusual orbit. It now brings Jupiter's moon count up to 79, the most of any planet in our solar system.

Sheppard said Jupiter and Saturn may actually have a similar number of moons, with some of the latter's smaller ones not yet detected. That meant the entire process took a full year.

The newly discovered moons await naming, a task for which the public may be enlisted, so it's a good idea to brush up on the IAU's naming rules for Jovian moons - and which names have already been taken. The nine moons are thought to be the fragments of three larger bodies that collided with asteroids, comets or other moons.

This oddball takes about a year and a half to circle Jupiter, and orbits at an inclined angle that crosses paths with a swarm of moons traveling in a retrograde, or in the opposite direction of Jupiter's spin rotation.

He added that the team was able to look for new moons "serendipitously".

But one moon, tentatively dubbed "Valetudo" (green), is an oddball, orbiting with Jupiter's spin but within the retrograde cluster. The newly discovered moons' relatively small size - between 0.6 to 1.8 miles across - is probably why scientists did not know about them before.

Our solar system's oldest and biggest planet, Jupiter, has many moons.

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Nine of the new moons are in the retrograde group, a distant bunch of moons that rotate in the opposite direction of Juipter. Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science says he and his colleagues had been trying to track down a giant planet they think may be lurking at the outer reaches of our solar system. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust".

It's possible the various orbital moon groupings we see today were formed in the distant past through this exact mechanism.

Elucidating the complex influences that shaped a moon's orbital history can teach scientists about our Solar System's early years. If the collisions had happened earlier, the moons would likely have interacted with dust and gas leftover from forming Jupiter and been dragged into the planet.

The curious find might shed light on how many of Jupiter's current moons were formed.

Using the 4-meter Víctor Blanco Telescope in Chile, the team really hit the moon jackpot.

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. Confirmation came with help from a variety of observatories, including the 6.5-metre Magellan telescope at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the 4-metre Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, the 2.2-metre University of Hawaii telescope and the 8-metre Subaru and Gemini Telescopes, also in Hawaii. The orbits of the new moons are marked with thicker curves. Observations were partly obtained at CTIO, NOAO, which are operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, under contract with the NSF.

The researchers, from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, picked out one of the 12 moons as an "oddball".

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