Astronomers find 12 new moons around Jupiter

Jupiter as seen from Hubble.                  Space Telescope Science Institute

One moon is located in the outer group but orbits in the opposite direction. 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. They realized they could observe Jupiter at the same time. 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.

Astronomers describe the twelfth new Jovian moon as an "oddball".

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. The team's goal was to scan the sky for evidence of a massive ninth planet in the outer solar system. Because the planet is so big and bright, researchers surmised that unrecorded moons could be faint, or even obscured, or quite far from the gas giant. Sheppard said Jupiter and Saturn may actually have a similar number of moons, with some of Saturn's smaller ones not yet detected. Jupiter is not in the frame, but off to the upper left. It's not clear when Valetudo will get a close-up, but it ought to be before anything goes splat. Not yet, anyway. "Right now the only definition of a moon is something that orbits the planet", Sheppard said, as long as it isn't human-made.

Of the 79 moons now known, most orbit in the same direction as other moons nearest them. If moon circles a planet in the opposite direction of a rotating planet, that orbit is retrograde.

Due to their sizes-one to three kilometers-these moons are more influenced by surrounding gas and dust.

The remaining two satellites others are among a closer, inner group that orbit in the prograde, or same direction.

Europa, one of Jupiter's larger moons, casts a shadow on the planet's surface. The moons orbit in three different groupings and are thought to be the remnants of three bodies that were broken apart in earlier collisions. It's small - less than one kilometer in diameter - with a prograde orbit that crosses the outer retrograde moons. It's also the smallest known moon of Jupiter, scientists said.

Researchers in the U.S. stumbled upon the new moons while hunting for a mysterious ninth planet that is postulated to lurk far beyond the orbit of Neptune, the most distant planet in the solar system. 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. "Magnificent desolation", Sheppard says, is the ideal. The planet must have acted like a vacuum, sucking up all the material that was around it. At the same time, they watched for Planet Nine or smaller, distant dwarf planets in the background. If the collisions had happened earlier, the moons would likely have interacted with dust and gas leftover from forming Jupiter and been dragged into the planet. Given the moons' stable orbits and kilometer-scale sizes, the collisions were likely chance events later in the solar system's history. Only in today's much emptier solar system, after the giant planets finished forming and clearing their surroundings of gas and dust, would small moons like these have been able to survive.

The last of the team's discoveries is the strangest of them all.

The IAU requires moons of Jupiter to have names related to the Roman god Jupiter.

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