Astronomers find 12 new moons orbiting Jupiter, including an "oddball"

The current team of astronomers did not set out to find new moons of Jupiter, but was scanning the skies for planets beyond Pluto when the moons fell into the path of their telescope.

These new moons probably formed in a place in our solar system known as the giant planet region, which is between the asteroid belt, dominated by rocky asteroids, and the Kuiper belt, dominated by icy comets.

The number of known objects orbiting Jupiter is now 79, the most of any planet in the solar system.

The newly discovered "oddball" moon has a prograde orbit, but it orbits farther from Jupiter than the other moons in the larger prograde group and it takes about one and a half Earth years to complete an orbit. "By looking at these outer moons", he said, "we can get an insight into what the objects were like that ended up forming the planets we see today". They're quite small, measuring two miles in diameter at the most, and they orbit at a larger distance than numerous already-documented moons of Jupiter.

"This is really cool and really exciting", astronomer Jonti Horner of the University of Southern Queensland, who was not involved in the research, told ScienceAlert.

Gareth Williams at the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center used the team's observations to calculate orbits for the newly found moons. It's believed that numerous tiny moons around Jupiter were once much larger, having broken up over time due to the stress of gravity or perhaps even collisions with each other, resulting in the smaller objects we see today.

Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, was hardly short of moons before the latest findings. Nearly all of Jupiter's prograde moons are believed to be fragments of a larger moon that broke apart. "This is an unstable situation", continued Sheppard. "What these other objects were has been a mystery".

And he thinks Jupiter might have even more moons just as small waiting to be found.

It took the team a while to make the required observations to confirm each moon's existence.

Two of them are pretty straightforward.

The inner moons take about a year to circle Jupiter, while the outer moons take twice as long.

Astronomers oftentimes have to look very, very carefully for something that they believe exists in a certain spot in space.

They're calling one moon an "oddball" because of its unusual orbit. The satellite, named for Jupiter's great-granddaughter, could be a bit of unfinished business, the last remnant of the ancient moons that provided the grist for the retrograde cluster, the team theorizes. "It is moving prograde while all the other objects at a similar distance from Jupiter are moving retrograde".

A team led by Scott S. Sheppard from Washington DC's Carnegie Institution for Science first spotted the moons in 2017 while on the hunt for a possible massive planet beyond Pluto.

With 67 other known moons flying around Jupiter, there's already a good amount of traffic around the gas planet, as shown in the illustration above. "They're going around the planet in the opposite direction that Jupiter rotates", Sheppard says.

Scientists believe moons like Valetudo and its siblings appeared soon after Jupiter formed.

These new moons aren't exactly record-breakers in terms of size. This swarm may have originally been three separate moons that broke apart after collisions.

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

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