Astronomers Find a Staggering 12 New Moons Orbiting Jupiter

Astronomers have discovered a dozen new moons orbiting Jupiter, but one could spell disaster for the others - 1km-wide "oddball" moving in the opposite direction to the other 78 objects circling the gas giant.

One of the new moons in the outer group is particularly unique, according to astronomer Scott Sheppard at the Carnegie Institution for Science, who led the team that first spotted the moons previous year.

It took a year for their orbits to be confirmed with a series of other telescopes in the United States and Chile. "It's also likely Jupiter's smallest-known moon, being less than 1km (0.6 of a mile) in diameter".

Two more of the moons are in a group that circle much closer to the planet in prograde orbits which travel in the same direction as Jupiter's spin.

Eleven are "normal" moons, with nine of them part of a distant outer swarm that orbit in the retrograde, meaning they move in the opposite direction to Jupiter's spin.

The discovery of these moons came from a totally different search for new solar system bodies.

A look at Jupiter's new moons. "We think they're something in between the rocky asteroids, which are interior to Jupiter, and the icy comets, which are exterior to Neptune", Sheppard says.

"Jupiter is like a big vacuum cleaner because it's so massive", Sheppard said. Because it's moving in the opposite direction of the other moons, a head-on collision is much more likely.

Astronomers have proposed the name "Valetudo" for the oddball moon, after the Roman god Jupiter's great-granddaughter, the goddess of health and hygiene. "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".

Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede, is the ninth-largest object in the solar system, bigger than the planet Mercury and dwarf planets like Pluto.

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In the spring of 2017, Jupiter happened to be in an area of sky the team wanted to search for Planet Nine.

Before Sheppard's team conducted their survey, there were 69 known Jovian moons, but there's always been reason to believe there are quite a few more.

This means, unlike those closer to Jupiter, it crosses the outer retrograde moons.

For example, the discovery that the smallest moons in Jupiter's various orbital groups are still abundant suggests the collisions that created them occurred after the era of planet formation, when the Sun was still surrounded by a rotating disk of gas and dust from which the planets were born.

The so-called "oddball" has such a unique orbit that it is at risk of smashing into the other moons - a cosmic collision that could risk wiping the space rocks out.

"The giant planets formed out of material that used to be in that region". Sheppard expects there could be even more small moons lurking out there. They had set their sights on the outer solar system and were looking for more evidence of the elusive Planet Nine, a predicted but as yet unobserved large outer solar system planet.

All the newly identified moons are relatively small.

The newly discovered moons await naming, a task for which the public may be enlisted, so it's a good idea to brush up on the IAU's naming rules for Jovian moons - and which names have already been taken.

"Valetudo's going down the highway the wrong way, so it's very likely it will collide with these other objects".

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