Jupiter's moon count reaches 79, including tiny 'oddball'

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A team of astronomers looking for a proposed planet past the orbit of Pluto got a surprise of their own when they discovered new moons around Jupiter. 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.

The team's results are not yet available in a peer-reviewed journal, as Sheppard's team is now running supercomputer simulations to try and figure out how often Valetudo might collide with a retrograde moon.

"Our other discovery is a real oddball and has an orbit like no other known Jovian moon", Sheppard explained.

These are images of one of the new moons, named Valetudo. They found 12, two of which were announced a year ago. That brings the total number of Jovian moons to 79.

The moons are small, ranging from just one kilometre to three kilometres in width.

The moon, which has the proposed name Valetudo, orbits in the same direction as Jupiter's rotation, unlike all the other moons in the outer group. Nine objects, which are in three different groups, are likely the remnants of larger moons that broke apart during collisions.

Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, was hardly short of moons before the latest findings. Of the twelve, only three moons orbit in a prograde direction, and are closer to Jupiter. "So, the whole process took a year".

But he said he expects astronomers will discover more tiny moons in the coming decades.

All of the moons orbit much further out than the Galilean moons you may have heard of: Europa, Ganymede, Io and Callisto.

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This means, unlike those closer to Jupiter, it crosses the outer retrograde moons.

It takes around 18 months to orbit Jupiter, and its orbit passes that of the retrograde moons, which makes collisions pretty likely.

"There was no eureka moment", said Sheppard, who led the team of astronomers. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust".

"What astonishes me about these moons is that they're the remnants of what the planet formed from", he said. When Jupiter and the other giant planets were forming, the solar system was a disk and gas and dust that surrounded the infant Sun.

Jupiter's moons range in size from shrimpy satellites to whopping space hulks.

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. While the scientists' planet hunt has so far come up dry, the team, using the recently upgraded Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, also had Jupiter in view, leading to the discovery. "If one did happen, we would be able to detect it from Earth, but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon". This proved to be quite helpful, as the unknown moons around Jupiter are small and dim.

The team believes Valetudo might be a fragment of a larger moon, broken off in a collision with a larger retrograde moon, resulting in something like the retrograde groupings observed.

If these raw materials had still been present when Jupiter's first generation of moons collided to form its current clustered groupings of moons, the drag exerted by any remaining gas and dust on the smaller moons would have been sufficient to cause them to spiral inwards toward Jupiter. So they were likely formed after they had dissipated.

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