When Pluto was first discovered, it wasn’t known if it had any moons, and it was already a tiny world itself, smaller than Mercury (which doesn’t have any moons). As of last year however, five moons have been found orbiting Pluto! Now a new study announced today suggests that there may be up to ten more little moons or moonlets keeping Pluto company in the outer fringes of the solar system.
A computer simulation, previously designed to study the formation of planets and other icy objects in the Kuiper Belt out beyond Neptune, was used to do calculations regarding the formation of Pluto and its moons.
The study, by scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, suggests that there should be more tiny moons, too faint to be seen from Earth. They would most likely range from about 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) to 3 kilometres (1.8 miles) in size. That’s too small to be seen by the largest telescopes on Earth, and just on the edge of detectability by the Hubble Space Telescope.
According to team leader Scott Kenyon, “Pluto is so bright. I don’t think a ground-based telescope would have a chance, and it’s at the limit of what HST can do.”
How did little Pluto end up with so many moons? Astronomers think they formed from a disk of debris orbiting Pluto, much the same way that the planets formed from the gas and dust disk orbiting the young sun. An interesting discovery, since larger worlds like Mercury and Venus have no moons at all, Mars has just two and Earth of course only one.
It will be interesting to see what happens when the New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto in July 2015. There is a possibility that the flight path of NH might need to be modified a bit because of the discovery last year of the fifth known moon, P5, and especially if even more small moon are confirmed before then.
Pluto may have been downgraded to a dwarf planet, but for a world that isn’t considered (by some) to be a planet anymore, it sure does seem to mimic one!
This article was first published on Examiner.com.