This interest in finding new moons around Jupiter wasn't just a spur of the moment decision for Sheppard.
The researchers confirmed two new moons among the inner prograde moons. Along with two found through the same research project but announced in June 2017, this brings the roster of Jupiter's known natural satellites to 79. And these new moons point to a violent and destructive past. Of the 12 latest moons to join Jupiter's family, it's a maverick whose odd orbit may give astronomers crucial insights to understanding how the moons of Jupiter came to be.
The remaining moon is less than a kilometer across, further out than the two conventional moons and has a 1.5-year orbit-and the orbit is inclined. He and his team have been photographing the skies with some of today's best telescope technology, hoping to catch sight of this mysterious ninth planet. At the same time, they watched for Planet Nine or smaller, distant dwarf planets in the background.
Astronomers made the discoveries using the Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
"This is an unstable situation", Sheppard said.
"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", Dr Sheppard added. They take less than a year to orbit Jupiter. Jupiter is not in the frame, but off to the upper left.
The view from the Chilean mountaintop taught researchers a lot, but there's more to learn. It was probably right in the middle of the planets we know so well, Sheppard said.
"Valetudo is like driving down the highway on the wrong side of the road", Sheppard wrote in an email to Fast Company. This individualistic path could lead to more head-on collisions between the "oddball" prograde and the retrograde moons, which are moving in opposite directions. The lost moons were initially sighted in 2003, but scientists could not define their exact orbits and lost track of them. One of the moons, Valetudo (between orange markers), can be seen in these images. Given a provisional name Valetudo (the great-granddaughter of Jupiter in mythology), it orbits prograde, but is also so far from Jupiter that its orbit is solidly among the retrograde moons! These distant retrograde moons are grouped into at least three distinct orbital groupings and are thought to be the remnants of three once-larger parent bodies that broke apart during collisions with asteroids, comets, or other moons.
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It takes around 18 months to orbit Jupiter, and its orbit passes that of the retrograde moons, which makes collisions pretty likely.
Most of the prograde moons orbit much closer to the planet than the retrograde moons do. That's a lot of moons.
"Our solar system is odd for not hosting a super-Earth, since it's the most common type of planet, and now we find that it's also odd for not having a super-Earth despite having a Jupiter", Bryan said.
The giant planet region is where the largest planets in our solar system formed, and it's devoid of objects now because the planets gobbled up all of the material to form.
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 first is that it's small in size, with a diameter that totals only about a kilometer.
Sheppard is leading a team that scrutinizes the darkest reaches of the solar system.
With current technology, as well as the next generation of telescopes that will have even more capabilities, Sheppard believes that they could definitively say whether Planet Nine exists in the next few years.
Elucidating the complex influences that shaped a moon's orbital history can teach scientists about our solar system's early years. Valetudo is the goddess of health and hygiene, which can not help with this little oddball moon's self-confidence.