During a quest to find Planet Nine, a mysterious planet believed to be on the edge of our solar system, astronomers discovered something else: 12 new moons around Jupiter. "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 scientists embarked on a yearlong process that involved several observations to confirm the moons' existence, according to a Carnegie Institution for Science press release.
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. "It's also likely Jupiter's smallest known moon, being less than one kilometer in diameter".
The inner moons take about a year to circle Jupiter, while the outer moons take twice as long.
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. The irregular satellites didn't form around Jupiter in the same way that the planets formed around the Sun, or the regular satellites around Jupiter, from a flat disc in a prograde orbit. Sheppard believes it could be Jupiter's smallest, and it has an orbit unlike any other moon around the planet. With this discovery, Jupiter now has a staggering 79 known orbiting moons - more than any other planet in the solar system.
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For example, the discovery that the smallest moons in Jupiter's various orbital groups are still abundant suggests the collisions that created them occurred after the era of planet formation. Sheppard's girlfriend came up with a name for it: Valetudo, the great-granddaughter of the Roman god Jupiter.
Finally, there are retrograde moons.
The moon travels in the same direction as the prograde moons, but is located as far from Jupiter as the retrograde moons that travel in the opposite direction. Since it's more distant than the other prograde moons, the oddball crosses the path of outer retrograde moons.
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Sheppard, whose report appears in the International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Electronic Circular, suspects that Valetudo is the final remnant of a once much larger moon that has been ground to dust by collisions in the past. "It's basically like you're driving down the highway in the wrong direction", Sheppard says. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust". That brings the total number of Jovian moons to 79.
This April 2017 image shows the planet Jupiter. "They also are fragments of the early solar system before the planets were formed, which makes studying them important to learning about the solar system's history". Only the two innermost planets in the solar system, Mercury and Venus, have none.
"If we do find this planet in the next few years, it would be a pretty awesome discovery for astronomy". The researchers even wonder if the crashes are responsible for the swarms of smaller Jovian moons we see today.
Due to their sizes-one to three kilometers-these moons are more influenced by surrounding gas and dust. So they were likely formed after they had dissipated.
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