Astronomers Just Announced The Discovery of 12 New Moons Around Jupiter

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That brings its total known satellites to 79, the most in the solar system.

Astronomers have discovered a dozen new moons orbiting Jupiter, including one "oddball" in an orbit that eventually could lead to a head-on collision.

"Jupiter just happened to be in the sky near the search fields where we were looking for extremely distant Solar System objects, 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", said Scott Sheppard, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science, a private, nonprofit organisation based in Washington, D.C. 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. The retrograde set of moons take about two years to complete a lap around Jupiter, and the prograde ones take under a year. The 12th moon, however, is described as "a real oddball", because of its unique orbit and because it is also probably Jupiter's smallest known moon, at less than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter, Sheppard said in the statement.

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But what's particularly wild about these newly discovered moons is that researchers weren't even looking for them. They're calling one moon an "oddball" because of its unusual orbit. The satellite, named for Jupiter's great-granddaughter, could be a bit of unfinished business, the last remnant of the ancient moons that provided the grist for the retrograde cluster, the team theorizes. This means it crosses paths with the outer retrograde moons and could collide with them.

They are also believed to be fragments of a larger moon that was broken apart and take just under a year to circle Jupiter. One moon is located in the outer group but orbits in the opposite direction.

Sheppard says Jupiter's prograde moons probably formed from the same spinning disc of stuff that eventually coalesced to form the planet. They are part of a larger group, all with similar distances and angles of inclination, taking little less than a year to orbit Jupiter. Given the moons' stable orbits and kilometer-scale sizes, the collisions were likely chance events later in the solar system's history. Not yet, anyway. "Right now the only definition of a moon is something that orbits the planet", Sheppard said, as long as it isn't human-made.

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This moon, now called Valetudo, moves in a prograde motion, though it is slightly inclined compared to the orbits of the other moons. Astronomers believe that prograde moons form around a planet from the same cloud of dust and gas, which is why they tend to have closer orbits and matching rotation.

The team discovered 12 new Jovian moons, ten of which were never-before-seen objects, while a further two had been spotted previously by scientists. Because of that small moon's orbit, it may be eventually be destined for an crash. "New cameras allow us to cover the whole space around Jupiter in a few images, and this camera is well-shaded", Sheppard said. In the meantime, they're waiting for the IAU to formally accept "Valetudo" as the name for the oddball moon. Of Jupiter's 79 moons, 26 remain unnamed, including nine of the 10 new ones. They could be rock, ice or a mixture. We already have a classification for dwarf planets.

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