A Dwarf Planet with Moons
Pluto has been in the news a lot lately. The New Horizons spacecraft is headed out to swoop past this icy dwarf planet and show us what it really looks like. That will happen in July 2015 — just three years from now. In the meantime, the Hubble Space Telescope keeps checking out this distant world and finding new moons around it. The HST observations are an ongoing project to make sure that mission planners for New Horizons have a good idea of the known hazards (i.e. things that the spacecraft could hit) as it whizzes past Pluto in a few years.
Last week, the HST folks announced the discovery of a fifth moon orbiting Pluto. For now, it’s called P5, and in time, it will get an official name.
Pluto’s moons, with the exception of its largest moon Charon, are pretty small. This newly discovered one is no bigger than 15 miles across. Now, it’s kind of intriguing that Pluto has so many of its own moons, and scientists are busily figuring out how it could have gained such a following through its history. The current thinking is that these little moons are debris from a collision between Pluto and another object early in the history of the solar system, and subsequently were swept into Pluto’s orbit.
Collisions ARE an important part of solar system evolution. Earth’s own Moon was most likely formed in the aftermath of a collision between the infant Earth and a Mars-sized object. And, we still see collisions today: comets collide with planets, asteroids collide, objects in Saturn’s rings collide, and so on. Collisions are a fact of life when you live in a planetary system and people in planetary science are still defining and understanding the role that smashups play in the larger evolution of worlds.
The New Horizons mission is a small spacecraft that proposed to NASA after the Pluto Kuiper Express mission got cancelled by the agency due to lack of funds. New Horizons has moved out beyond the orbit of Uranus, carrying a suite of scientific instruments, including a set of cameras, radio science detectors, plasma and high-energy particle detectors, and a dust counter. It has already sent back data and images Jupiter and some of its moons, and an asteroid.
Once the mission gets to Pluto, it will fly quite close to this frozen world and take massive amounts of data about its surface and atmosphere. After that, the spacecraft heads out to explore more of the Kuiper Belt and relay information about this unexplored frontier of the solar system. Stay tuned!