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Pluto's Crazy Moons

A video showing the "pandemonium" of Pluto's miniature system

The latest pictures using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the New Horizons probe confirm that there are five moons circling in eccentric--even crazy--orbits around the dwarf planet Pluto. Small in size, Pluto has shattered all the gravitational theories put in place by Einstein in the 1950s.

Pluto's miniature solar system is not subject to gravitational forces, it's like a bag of buzz-saws twirling through space. Scientists can't believe the data.

"The moons form a series of neatly nested orbits, a bit like Russian dolls," said team leader Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "The way I would describe this system is not just chaos, but pandemonium," he said about the the New Horizons mission (Nov. 9) during a news conference at the meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. "We honestly have not seen anything like this before, and we still don't know what to make of it."

The Pluto team is intrigued that such a small planet can have such a complex collection of satellites. The new discovery provides additional clues for unraveling how the Pluto system formed and evolved, and how it captured its satellites. The favored theory is that all the moons are relics of a collision between Pluto and another large Kuiper belt object billions of years ago. Electric theory has a different scenario.

"The discovery of so many small moons indirectly tells us that there must be lots of small particles lurking unseen in the Pluto system," said Harold Weaver of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

"The inventory of the Pluto system we're taking now with Hubble will help the New Horizons team design a safer trajectory for the spacecraft," added Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., the mission's principal investigator.

Pluto's largest moon, Charon, was discovered in 1978 in observations made at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Hubble observations in 2006 uncovered two additional small moons, Nix and Hydra. In 2011 another moon, P4, was found in Hubble data.

Provisionally designated S/2012 (134340) 1, the latest moon was detected in nine separate sets of images taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 on June 26, 27, and 29, 2012 and July 7 and 9, 2012.

In the years following the New Horizons Pluto flyby, astronomers plan to use the infrared vision of Hubble's planned successor, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, for follow-up observations. The Webb telescope will be able to measure the surface chemistry of Pluto, its moons, and many other bodies that lie in the distant Kuiper Belt along with Pluto.

The Pluto team members are M. Showalter (SETI Institute), H.A. Weaver (Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University), and S.A. Stern, A.J. Steffl, and M.W. Buie (Southwest Research Institute).

Go To PLUTO ROCKS

CONTACT

Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
410-338-4514
villard@stsci.edu

Karen Randall
SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif.
650-960-4537
krandall@seti.org


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