In a breakthrough discovery, astronomers have discovered a dozen new moons circling around Jupiter, bringing the planet’s total known satellite count to 79, the most of any planet in our solar system.
A team of scientists, led by Scott Sheppard from the Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC, found the unknown moons orbiting Jupiter while scouting for the proposed Planet Nine, which is expected to lie beyond Pluto. The reason that the 12 moons remained unnoticed until now is that none of the new moons are more than 2 miles in diameter. However, this time the astronomers were able to detect them with the help of a powerful telescope in Chile that was designed to detect faint objects in space.
Scott Sheppard said that they accidentally spotted the moons while looking for distant and hard-to-spot objects out past Pluto. When the research team was searching for Planet Nine in the region past Pluto last year, they co-incidentally stumbled upon Jupiter that happened to be in the sky near the search fields.
“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,” Sheppard added.
While 11 of the newly discovered moons are normal, the 12th moon is being described as a real oddball as it has an orbit like no other known Jovian moon. It moves in the opposite direction of its peers. Furthermore, it is also probably Jupiter’s smallest known moon, at less than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter. Researchers have proposed to name the oddball as Valetudo, after the Roman goddess of health and hygiene.
“It’s basically driving down the highway in the wrong direction,” Sheppard said. “That’s a very unstable situation. Head-on collisions are likely to happen in that situation.”