Galileo Would Be Stunned: Jupiter Now Has 79 Moons

In this image provided by NASA ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team the planet Jupiter

In this image provided by NASA ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team the planet Jupiter

Twelve new moons have been discovered orbiting Jupiter, raising to 79 the number of natural satellites known to be circling our solar system's biggest planet. "These outer moons", Sheppard says, "are like the last remnants of the planetesimals, the first objects that formed our solar system".

The new moons, reported in The International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center's Electronic Circular, were first found by a team of USA astronomers in March 2017 while they searched the skies for signs of Planet 9, a hypothesized ninth planet orbiting the sun far beyond Neptune.

It took a year for their orbits to be confirmed with a series of other telescopes in the United States and Chile.

The oddball is thought to be Jupiter's smallest moon; it measures roughly 3,000 feet across. Most likely to be pieces of a once larger moon that was broken up in orbit, they take almost a year to complete a lap around Jupiter.

"It takes several observations to confirm an object actually orbits around Jupiter", Gareth Williams at the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, said in a statement. These all travel in retrograde, or the opposite of Jupiter's rotation, while two more, also though to be moon remnants, travel in prograde. Jupiter was in the same part of the sky, so they were able to hunt for moons as well.

"We think there are more moon fragments yet to be found around Jupiter", Sheppard said, "but technology will need to get better for us to find them". "And that makes it a very unstable situation". "What these other objects were has been a mystery".

Sheppard did not set out to detect new moons.

Two of them are pretty straightforward. They saw a new group of objects moving around the giant gas planet but didn't know whether they were moons or asteroids passing near Jupiter.

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The moons had not been spotted before because they are tiny. For the other 11 moons, Sheppard said they might let the public help out.

The 12th new moon is a bit of an oddball, Sheppard said, with "an orbit like no other known Jovian moon".

Valetudo, as the team calls this oddball moon, is named after the Roman goddess of health, cleanliness and hygiene. There is one other moon orbiting Jupiter that has the same rotation, but Valetudo orbits further away from the planet so its unorthodox movement is more baffling. It has a prograde orbit at a distance where the rest of Jupiter's moons have retrograde orbits. If 12 moons were orbiting a planet, undiscovered until now, imagine the hidden possibilities of what else is lurking out in the great expanse of space.

It orbits in the prograde and takes about a year and a half to circle Jupiter, but it doesn't behave quite like the rest of the group.

"What's really cool for me here is what they're calling their oddball", Horner told ScienceAlert.

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.

This was at a time when the Sun was still surrounded by a rotating disc of gas and dust from which the planets were born. This means it crosses paths with the outer retrograde moons and could collide with them.

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