Hubble discovers fifth moon orbiting Pluto

Hubble discovers fifth moon orbiting Pluto

7:56 AM, 12th July 2012
Hubble discovers fifth moon orbiting Pluto
The Hubble Space Telescope.

WASHINGTON DC, US: A team of astronomers using NASA’s Hubble space telescope is reporting the discovery of another moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The moon is estimated to be irregular in shape and 6 to 15 miles across. It is in a 58,000 mile diametre circular orbit around Pluto that is assumed to be co-planar with the other satellites in the system. “The moons form a series of neatly nested orbits, a bit like Russian dolls,” said Mark Showalter, Team Lead, SETI Institute in Mountain View. The discovery increases the number of known moons orbiting Pluto to five.

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. The favoured theory is that all the moons are relics of a collision between Pluto and another large Kuiper belt object billions of years ago. The new detection will help scientists navigate NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft through the Pluto system in 2015, when it makes an historic and long-awaited high-speed flyby of the distant world.

The team is using Hubble’s powerful vision to scour the Pluto system to uncover potential hazards to the New Horizons spacecraft. Moving past the dwarf planet at a speed of 30,000 miles per hour, New Horizons could be destroyed in a collision with even a BB-shot-size piece of orbital debris. In the years following the New Horizons Pluto flyby, astronomers plan to use the infrared vision of Hubble’s planned successor. 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.

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, 29, and July 7 and 9.

© NASA News

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