A Dozen New Moons of Jupiter Discovered, Including one "Oddball"

(17 July 2018)

Other Moons of Jupiter
Newly discovered moons shown in bold
(Credit: Roberto Molar Candanosa, Carnegie Institution for Science)

Twelve new moons orbiting Jupiter have been found -- 11 “normal” outer moons, and one that they’re calling an “oddball.” This brings Jupiter’s total number of known moons to a whopping 79 -- the most of any planet in our solar system.

A team led by Carnegie’s Scott S. Sheppard first spotted the moons in the spring of 2017 while they were looking for very distant solar system objects as part of the hunt for a possible massive planet far beyond Pluto.

In 2014, this same team found the object with the most-distant known orbit in our solar system and was the first to realize that an unknown massive planet at the fringes of our solar system, far beyond Pluto, could explain the similarity of the orbits of several small extremely distant objects. This putative planet is now sometimes popularly called Planet X or Planet Nine. University of Hawaii’s Dave Tholen and Northern Arizona University’s Chad Trujillo are also part of the planet search team.

“Jupiter just happened to be in the sky near the search fields where we were looking for extremely distant solar system objects, 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,” said Sheppard.

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 takes several observations to confirm an object actually orbits around Jupiter,” Williams said. “So, the whole process took a year.”

Nine of the new moons are part of a distant outer swarm of moons that orbit it in the retrograde, or opposite direction of Jupiter’s spin rotation. These distant retrograde moons are grouped into at least three distinct orbital groupings and are thought to be the remnants of three once-larger parent bodies that broke apart during collisions with asteroids, comets, or other moons. The newly discovered retrograde moons take about two years to orbit Jupiter.

The initial discovery of most of the new moons were made on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American in Chile and operated by the National Optical Astronomical Observatory of the United States (The CTIO complex is part of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), along with the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Tucson, Arizona.  NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF). The telescope recently was upgraded with the Dark Energy Camera, making it a powerful tool for surveying the night sky for faint objects. Several telescopes were used to confirm the finds, including the 6.5-meter Magellan telescope at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile; the 4-meter Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory Arizona (thanks to Audrey Thirouin, Nick Moskovitz and Maxime Devogele); the 8-meter Subaru Telescope and the University of Hawaii 2.2 meter telescope (thanks to Dave Tholen and Dora Fohring at the University of Hawaii); and 8-meter Gemini Telescope in Hawaii (thanks to Director’s Discretionary Time to recover Valetudo). Bob Jacobson and Marina Brozovic at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed the calculated orbit of the unusual oddball moon in 2017 in order to double check its location prediction during the 2018 recovery observations in order to make sure the new interesting moon was not lost.

 

The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) is a complex of astronomical telescopes and instruments located at 30.169 S, 70.804 W, approximately 80 km to the East of La Serena, Chile, at an altitude of 2200 meters.  CTIO headquarters are located in La Serena, Chile, about 300 miles north of Santiago.

The CTIO complex is part of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), along with the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Tucson, Arizona.  NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF).  CTIO, as part of the AURA Observatory in Chile, operates in Chile under Chilean law, through an Agreement with the University of Chile and with the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Chile.

The principal telescopes on site are the 4-m Victor M. Blanco Telescope and the 4.1-m Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope.  One of the two 8-m telescopes comprising the Gemini Observatory is co-located with CTIO on AURA property in Chile, together with more than 10 other telescopes and astronomical projects.