Astronomers Discover 12 New Moons Around Jupiter

Astronomers looking for Planet Nine-a celestial body predicted to orbit in the outer reaches of our solar system-stumbled upon 12 new moons orbiting Jupiter.

Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, wasknown to have 67 moons circling around it, including 4 that are easily visible from Earth using just binoculars. Galileo discovered the first four of Jupiter's moons, all huge, in 1610. University of Hawaii's Dave Tholen and Northern Arizona University's Chad Trujillo are also part of the planet search team.

"We could choose our field of observation to be very close to Jupiter, so we could look for things moving at Jupiter's rate-foreground objects, moving quite fast", while still on the hunt for relatively slower-moving objects in the fringes of the solar system, Sheppard says.

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. The 7 new retrograde moons join 45 other satellites that take 2-3 years to orbit. "It took a year to figure out what these objects were". Nine of them have retrograde orbits, going in the opposite direction to Jupiter's spin.

They are thought to be the remnants of three once larger moons that broke apart during collisions with asteroids, comets or other moons. These moons orbit Jupiter in the opposite direction.

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. "We think Jupiter captured them as these objects got too close to Jupiter in the past".

The new moons, pictured as circles above, were discovered a year ago by a team of astronomers.

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

"We had to observe the new candidate Jupiter moons again a month later and again a year later to confirm they were actually orbiting Jupiter and thus were moons of Jupiter", he said.

The moons Sheppard spied are farther-flung and tiny, each no more than two miles in diameter.

It has most likely collided with other moons, breaking it down into the fragment it is today.

"These moons are the last remnants of the building blocks of the giant planets as all other material in the giant planet region likely fell into the planets to help form them", Sheppard said. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust". That puts it on a possible collision course with a retrograde moon.

But the discovery might be short-lived because Valetudo faces destruction in head-on collisions. Valetudo is the name of Jupiter's great-granddaughter and a Roman goddess of health and hygiene, so it fits the bill. In fact, of Jupiter's 67 previously discovered moons, the 33 outermost moons all have retrograde orbits. Their existence shows that they were likely formed after this gas and dust dissipated.

As part of that search, Sheppard was using the 4-meter Víctor Blanco Telescope in Chile in March of past year and realized that Jupiter was right near the part of the sky he wanted to search. The telescope recently was upgraded with the Dark Energy Camera, making it a powerful tool for surveying the night sky for faint objects.

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