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

A dozen more small moons were recently discovered

Astronomers have found 12 previously unknown moons circling Jupiter, including one "oddball" whose days are numbered, due to its highly unusual orbit.

A team led by Sheppard initially spotted the moons in 2017 while scanning the outer solar system in search of "Planet X", a hypothesised world thought to be responsible for the observed orbits of several bodies in the remote Kuiper Belt.

Jupiter's 79 known moons are the most of any planet in the solar system, followed by the 62 identified around the giant ringed gas planet Saturn.

They discovered the 12 moons, but the observation and confirmation process, using multiple telescopes, took about a year.

The researchers believe that there might be a planet 200 times farther from the sun than we are (and five times more distant than Pluto) with an extremely stretched and oblong orbit on the edge of our solar system.

Two of the newly discovered satellites orbit with a group that are in between the outer group and the Galilean moons. It is more distant (for good reason!), more inclined, takes longer to orbit Jupiter than its siblings, and crosses the outer retrograde moons.

Sheppard said these moons were probably objects that formed near Jupiter during the early days of the solar system and were "captured" by the planet's strong gravitational pull. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust", Dr. Sheppard said. The Blanco four-meter telescope, at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, is equipped with a camera able to spot very faint objects. Since they are still around, now, that means they formed after that gas and dust had been swept away by the solar wind. But they realized in March a year ago that Jupiter would pass through the part of the night sky they wanted to search. The main theory on the origin of these moons is that were of larger moons of ancient plants that were broken apart during some ancient cosmological event, most likely due to collisions with comets or asteroids.

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Because it travels in the complete opposite direction as the rest of the neighborhood, this tiny moon is particularly vulnerable to collisions and stands a good chance of being obliterated in the future by an impact with a retrograde moon. Now, the count has touched 79 after the discovery of a dozen moons and it may raise in the future.

"Understanding these moons helps us understand what the planets were originally made from", Sheppard told ABC News via email, adding that the moons are "likely half ice and half rock". 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.

Gareth Williams of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center used Sheppard's observations to calculate orbits for the newly found moons. "It has an orbit like no other known Jovian moon", he explained.

Astronomers group Jupiter's moons by their distance from the planet as well as their orbital direction.

Over the weeks following full opposition, Jupiter will reach its highest point in the sky four minutes earlier each night, appearing as a bright, star-like object.

PALCA: Many of Jupiter's moons form from the same spinning disk of stuff that eventually coalesce to form the planet.

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