Researchers from the Carnegie Institute of Science have "serendipitously" stumbled upon 12 new moons of Jupiter, one was which was described as an "oddball".
The discovery means Jupiter, the oldest and largest planet in the solar system, has more moons than any of the other seven. After their observations and more than a year of follow-ups and confirmations, they announced this week that they found 12 new moons. "It's also likely Jupiter's smallest known moon, being less than one kilometre (0.62 miles) in diameter".
Two other new moons are closer and move in a prograde orbit, which is in line with the direction that Jupiter is moving. Valetudo orbits Jupiter in the same direction that the planet spins, but a bunch of other small moons share the same orbital path while traveling in the opposite direction.
Last spring, the scientists were scouring the sky with the Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and Jupiter popped in their view, said team leader Scott Sheppard, an astronomer with the Carnegie Institution for Science. "Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust", Dr. Sheppard said.
Valetudo is in Jupiter's distant, outer swarm of moons that circles in the opposite direction of the planet's rotation.
In was in March 2017 that the team in the U.S. first sported the moons from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. The astronomers detected them by using a powerful telescope in Chile that was created to detect faint objects in space.
If we were to host a system-wide beauty contest among the planets and accepted natural satellites as a valid skill, Jupiter would have a pretty unfair advantage.
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This oddball is a bit more distant than its prograde brothers, and it takes about a year and a half to orbit Jupiter.
Sheppard and his colleagues have proposed naming the oddball moon Valetudo, after a minor goddess and great-granddaughter of the Roman god Jupiter.
Astronomers suspect that the retrograde moons may be the remains of larger moons that were destroyed in head-on collisions with prograde objects. That brings the total number of Jovian moons to 79.
The oddball moon, which they named Valetudo, was captured in the opposite direction from the retrograde moons. As so often happens, the astronomers found the moons while searching for something completely unrelated. Valetudo is the goddess of health and hygiene, which can not help with this little oddball moon's self-confidence.
This interest in finding new moons around Jupiter wasn't just a spur of the moment decision for Sheppard.
Over the weeks following full opposition, Jupiter will reach its highest point in the sky four minutes earlier each night, appearing as a bright, star-like object.
This isn't likely to be the last new moons that we hear about coming from the gas giant, and astronomers believe there are still plenty smaller satellites that remain undetected. They also include a cluster of moons beyond Callisto, shown in blue in the image above.