10 new moons discovered orbiting Jupiter

Jupiter as seen from Hubble.                  Space Telescope Science Institute

The orbits of 9 other small Jovian moons are yet unknown. The find pushes Jupiter's total moon count to 79, the most of any planet in our solar system. "So we were serendipitously able to look for new moons around Jupiter while at the same time looking for planets at the fringes of our solar system".

The Blanco 4-meter telescope Sheppard was using is uniquely suited to spotting potential new moons both because the camera installed on it can photograph a huge area of sky at once and because it's particularly good at blocking stray light from bright objects nearby - say, Jupiter - that might wash out fainter ones.

Because Jupiter moves across the sky at a known speed, anything nearby moving at the same speed in the same direction becomes a candidate for a moon - but confirmation is a time-consuming process, Sheppard explained to ScienceAlert. It's just 1 kilometer wide, which makes it Jupiter's smallest moon, and takes a year and a half to orbit the planet.

"This is really cool and really exciting", astronomer Jonti Horner of the University of Southern Queensland, who was not involved in the research, told ScienceAlert. Researchers at the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center used Sheppard's team's data to estimate when another collision might happen. It's believed that numerous tiny moons around Jupiter were once much larger, having broken up over time due to the stress of gravity or perhaps even collisions with each other, resulting in the smaller objects we see today.

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. "We think Jupiter captured them as these objects got too close to Jupiter in the past". Sheppard said another collision will likely happen during the solar system's lifetime. "What these other objects were has been a mystery".

All the newly identified moons are relatively small, ranging in size from about six-tenths of a 1km to 4km. Just like that, Jupiter has 12 new moons., all of which have been confirmed by other telescopes.

Two of them are pretty straightforward. 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.

But the last moon is a weird one.

An illustration showing how the orbits of the newly discovered moons (bold) fit into the known orbital groupings of the Jovian moons (not bold). Valetudo is the name of Jupiter's great-granddaughter and a Roman goddess of health and hygiene, so it fits the bill. Many of Jupiter's outer moons were likely formed by collisions between larger retrograde moons and oddball prograde satellites. 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 ideal opportunity to advance two separate research goals with the same telescope data. That means the revolve around Jupiter opposite from the planet's rotation.

According to Horner, if Valetudo had formed early on, it would have been slowed by the gas and dust present at the formation of Jupiter, and fallen into the planet. Their existence shows that they were likely formed after this gas and dust dissipated. TheyÂre calling one moon an ‘oddball because of its unusual orbit. This swarm may have originally been three separate moons that broke apart after collisions.

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