Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Hubble Reveals Fifth Moon Of Pluto

Through the incredible eye of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers have announced the revelation of a another moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The moon is incredibly tiny - only about 6 to 15 miles in diameter - and irregularly shaped. It would appear to be in a 58,000 mile diameter orbit around Pluto and assumed to be co-planar with the other satellites in the system. This brings the known number of moons orbiting Pluto to five. How exciting is that?!

“The moons form a series of neatly nested orbits, a bit like Russian dolls,” said team lead Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

The Pluto team members consist of 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). This group is mystified that a dwarf planet could harbor such a complex collection of satellites. Through this new discovery, they may eventually be able to understand how a Plutonian system could form and evolve. At the present, the conjecture is the system may have formed through a collision with a Kuiper belt object during the solar system's early years.

Thanks to Hubble, the researchers are able to paint a far more accurate portrait of the environs which NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will encounter in 2015. This high-speed flyby will be an historic event and revealing potential navigational hazards in advance will ultimately lead to a successful mission. New Horizons will be blazing past the system at a speed of 30,000 miles per hour and encountering even a seed-sized piece of debris could spell disaster.

“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, Colorado, 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, 29, and July 3 and 9.

After New Horizons completes its Pluto flyby, astronomers will utilize the infrared vision of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to make additional observations. The Webb telescope will go even further into exploration by measuring the surface chemistry of Pluto, its moons, and many other bodies that lie in the distant Kuiper Belt along with Pluto.

For a little world that's no longer a planet, it's still making big news!

Reported by Tammy Plotner. Original Story Source: JPL/NASA Hubble News Release.

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