Astronomers Find a Staggering 12 New Moons Orbiting Jupiter

In this image provided by NASA ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team the planet Jupiter

These regular satellites consist of an inner group of four moons that orbit very closely to the planet and a main group of four Galilean moons that are Jupiter's largest moons. Until the announcement this morning by the International Astronomical Union of the discovery of an additional 10 moons about the gas-giant planet.

Before that it was believed that Jupiter 79 natural satellites of different sizes. This tells us something about the timing of the formation of these moon families, which, in turn, tells us something new about the formation of the Solar System.

But what's particularly wild about these newly discovered moons is that researchers weren't even looking for them.

Even better, they were found as a kind of bonus.

Sheppard is leading a team that scrutinizes the darkest reaches of the solar system.

"They didn't form with Jupiter", he says.

Once the Blanco telescope spotted previously unidentified objects near Jupiter, the research team used other telescopes to follow up on these moon candidates and confirm that they were orbiting Jupiter.

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PHOTO: An animation shows the movement of a tiny moon of Jupiter that researchers are calling Valetudo. Jupiter is not in the frame and is off to the upper left. Those moons were probably once part of much larger moons that splintered into smaller objects, Sheppard said. "It's like it's going down the highway in the wrong direction". If the geometry were just right, these objects could then find themselves orbiting Jupiter retrograde; we do see this in other moons of the outer planets. The other three are prograde, which orbit in the same direction. As NPR science correspondent Joe Palca reports, the 12 newest moons were announced today. Seven of them travel in remote orbits more than 20 million kilometers away from Jupiter, and in the opposite direction from the planet's rotation.

Turns out Jupiter has 12 extra moons we didn't know about. This runt is Jupiter's smallest known moon with a diameter of only 1 kilometer or a little over half a mile.

The team at the Carnegie Institution think that the oddball moon - potentially to be named Valetudo, after the Roman god Jupiter's great-granddaughter - may represent the leftovers of a former larger moon.

Because Valetudo's orbit crosses the orbits of some of the outer retrograde moons, it's possible that it suffered a head-on collision in the past. Astronomers believe they were once all part of a larger moon that broke apart. "I'm not astonished that it is gathering more moons" she said of Jupiter, adding that "By reviewing the active history of such things, we can recognize a lot about the creation of the Solar System".

"These objects started orbiting Jupiter, instead of falling into it". For the other 11 moons, Sheppard said they might let the public help out. The moons are so faint that they are not actually visible on any single exposure, only when several images are combined.

This Hubble telescope image of the giant planet Jupiter reveals the impact sites of two fragments from comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

It will appear as the fourth brightest object in the sky behind the moon, Mars and Venus.

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