Using NASA's Hubble space telescope, a team of researchers have discovered the fifth moon of the distant dwarf planet Pluto. With only one percent mass of the earth, Pluto was considered the ninth planet of the solar system, however declassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.
The fifth moon of Pluto is irregular in shape and measures 6 to 15 miles across. It is in a 58,000-mile diameter circular orbit around the planet, lying on the same plane as the other satellites in the system.
Temporarily named S/2012, the moon was spotted by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 in nine separate sets of images.
Other satellites of Pluto include Charon, the largest moon and two smaller moons Nix and Hydra discovered in 1978 and 2006 respectively. In 2011, another moon P4 was detected from Hubble data.
Mark Showalter of Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, popularly know as SETI Institute and team lead of the project said "The moons form a series of neatly nested orbits, a bit like Russian dolls."
The researchers believe the latest discovery would provide clues on how the complex system of Pluto originated and evolved. According to NASA, Pluto's moons are believed to have originated from the collision of the planet with a sizable object of the Kuiper belt, billions of years ago.
The Kuiper Belt is a disc-shaped region of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune at a distance of billions of kilometers from the sun. The belt is estimated to contain at least 70,000 trans Neptunian objects with diameters larger than 100 kilometers. Trans Neptunian objects are those which orbit the sun at a greater average distance than Neptune.
The discovery will help scientists plot a safer trajectory for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft which is scheduled for a rendezvous with the Pluto and its satellites sometime in July, 2015.
Scientists are now busy taking an inventory of Pluto's system using the Hubble Telescope for safe navigation of the spacecraft, as they think the detection of so many moons may indicate the presence of other undiscovered objects.
The New Horizons spacecraft will travel past Pluto at speeds of up to 30,000 miles per hour. At such speeds, any collision of the spacecraft with an even pellet-sized object could prove to be fatal and jeopardize the mission.
by RTT Staff Writer
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