Twelve new moons discovered orbiting Jupiter; brings total cout to 79

Astronomers find 12 new moons around Jupiter

The orbits of the 9 newly discovered retrograde moons of Jupiter are shown here.

A research team led by astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington has identified a total of 12 small moons of Jupiter, including the 10 described on Tuesday.

Two of the newly discovered moons orbit much closer to Jupiter and have a prograde orbit, meaning that they orbit in the same direction as the planet. The team first spotted most of the new Jovian moons using the Blanco 4-metre telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, and followed up with further observations at other telescopes.

This twelfth moon has a wide, 1.5-Earth-year orbit around Jupiter and travels among the retrograde moons.

In the meantime, they're waiting for the IAU to formally accept "Valetudo" as the name for the oddball moon. Most of these prograde moons take less than a year to travel around the planet. They have proposed to call the new moon Valetudo, named after the great-grandaughter of the Roman god Jupiter, the goddess of health and hygiene.

Nine of the new moons are part of a distant outer swarm of moons that orbit it in the retrograde, or opposite direction of Jupiter's spin rotation.

The oddball is thought to be Jupiter's smallest moon; it measures roughly 3,000 feet across.

"It's basically driving down the highway in the wrong direction", Sheppard said. They are thought to be the remnants of larger parent bodies that were broken apart in collisions with asteroids, comets and other moons. "What these other objects were has been a mystery".

Two of the new discoveries are part of a closer, inner group of moons that orbit in the prograde, or same direction as the planet's rotation.

Two of them are pretty straightforward.

Gareth Williams, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director at the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, predicted that "there aren't any bigger objects undiscovered out there" around Jupiter.

But the last moon is a weird one.

But one moon, tentatively dubbed "Valetudo" (green), is an oddball, orbiting with Jupiter's spin but within the retrograde cluster. Many of Jupiter's outer moons were likely formed by collisions between larger retrograde moons and oddball prograde satellites. It's small - less than one kilometer in diameter - with a prograde orbit that crosses the outer retrograde moons.

"So we could also search for Jupiter moons while looking for things that are well beyond Pluto", Sheppard says.

Jupiter, the fifth planet from the Sun, has a diameter of 142,984km. Because of that small moon's orbit, it may be eventually be destined for an crash.

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.

It's possible the various orbital moon groupings we see today were formed in the distant past through this exact mechanism.

"A full paper will likely be written after these simulations are done in a few months".

"It's a lovely result, and it really does highlight the importance of keeping looking out there", Horner said. Several other telescopes also confirmed those observations.

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