Pluto may have a number of hidden moons

Predicted system configuration for the Pluto–Charon system (Credit: Kenyon)

Main Points: Pluto may have 10 or more moons that are still undiscovered according to the new simulations. These undiscovered moons would pose some problems to the planned flyby of the spacecraft in 2015.

Journal: The Astronomical Journal

Study Further:

Team behind the NASA’s New Horizons mission planned to take close-ups of the Pluto system in July 2015 but this new finding could cause the team to think on new plans. Last year, Pluto’s 5th known moon, dubbed P5, was discovered and based on the findings officials said that they may need to redraw the spacecraft’s path to avoid such obstacles.

The new simulated moons of the Pluto would be in the size of 0.6 miles to 1.8 miles (1 to 3 kilometers) across.

About four weeks ago, scientists involved public to name the two new moons of Pluto, P4 and P5, discovered by Hubble Space Telescope in 2011 and 2012, respectively. These moons are bigger in size i.e. 15 to 20 miles (20 to 30 kilometers). Other three moons of Pluto are Charon, Nix and Hydra, named after the Greek mythological characters of the underworld. Charon is the Pluto’s largest moon.

Scientists found the dust cloud around the planet and supposed that the small moons of the Pluto – P4, Nix, P5 and Hydra – were formed by the collision and clumping together of the dust cloud. Scientists used simulations to look at the formation of the new moons from the dust and found that the clumping of the dust resulted in the increased size and after a certain size, i.e. 0.62 miles (1 km) across, the simulation showed that the clumped masses behave individually. According to the researchers, there could be more of such clumped masses, i.e. tiny moons, which are not visible from the Earth.

“We also predict an ensemble of smaller satellites with radii of 1-3 km or less and very small particles with radii of 1-100 cm … These objects should have semimajor axes outside the current orbit of Hydra.” Researchers wrote.

These new tiny moons of the Pluto would pose the risk to the New Horizons flyby and the scientists are thinking on some new strategies.

“Our results demonstrate that numerical calculations can produce simulated satellite systems with properties reasonably close to those observed. Prior to the New Horizons flyby of Pluto–Charon, we expect to refine the predictions considerably.” Researchers wrote, “Once New Horizons probes the masses, orbital architecture, and composition of the Pluto–Charon binary, a rich interplay between the data and the numerical simulations will enable a much more robust theory for the formation of satellites (planets) in binary planetary (stellar) systems.”

Source: Space


Scott J. Kenyon, & Benjamin C. Bromley (2013). The Formation of Pluto’s Low Mass Satellites The Astronomical Journal arXiv: 1303.0280v1

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