Scientists were looking for objects on the fringes of the solar system previous year when they pointed their telescopes close to Jupiter's backyard, according to Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institute for Science in Washington. Unfortunately, they couldn't find the hypothesized planet using the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American in Chile, but they did manage to unearth a treasure trove of new satellites around our largest planet.
The moonlets mostly follow Jupiter's known patterns: Located far beyond the planet's large primary moons (purple), two of the new moonlets belong to a grouping (blue) that spins in the same direction as the planet, all of which are believed to be the fragments of one large shattered moon. These moons orbit Jupiter in the opposite direction.
Nine of the newly discovered moons have retrograde orbits, meaning that they orbit in the opposite direction of 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.
They're calling one moon an "oddball" because of its unusual orbit.
But what's particularly wild about these newly discovered moons is that researchers weren't even looking for them.
A team of astronomers has been working since spring 2017 to confirm the dozen new outer moons, bringing Jupiter's total number of satellites to 79. In their recent observations, Sheppard's team documented nine of these (along with two prograde, closer-in moons). So a telescope isn't able to capture much more than the moons' orbits. Confirmation came with help from a variety of observatories, including the 6.5-metre Magellan telescope at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the 4-metre Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, the 2.2-metre University of Hawaii telescope and the 8-metre Subaru and Gemini Telescopes, also in Hawaii.
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Sheppard and his colleagues have proposed naming the oddball moon Valetudo, after a minor goddess and great-granddaughter of the Roman god Jupiter.
Because Valetudo's orbit crosses the orbits of some of the outer retrograde moons, it's possible that it suffered a head-on collision in the past. It's out where the outer, retrograde moons are, but it's orbiting Jupiter in the prograde direction, driving into the oncoming traffic. The largest Galilean moon, Ganymede, is bigger than the planet Mercury.
Jupiter's moons are arranged in a specific pattern that the giant planet has worked out over time. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust".
Elucidating the complex influences that shaped a moon's orbital history can teach scientists about our Solar System's early years. We already have a classification for dwarf planets.
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. We're not just talking about one or two stragglers, either. They also include a cluster of moons beyond Callisto, shown in blue in the image above. So hey, why not look for some more moons? So they were likely formed after they had dissipated.