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NASA’s Hubble Finds Pluto’s Moons Tumbling In Absolute Chaos

by NASA

(Artist conception) Using measurements of how much light the moons reflect, combined with estimates of their masses, we can now estimate the shapes and surface properties of three of the four small moons; Styx is too faint for this analysis. Nix and Hydra appear to be fairly bright objects, resembling dirty snow or desert sand. Their albedos are about 40%, which means that they reflect 40% of the sunlight that strikes them. Charon has just about the same albedo. Nix and Hydra are both highly elongated as well. Kerberos appears to be a much darker object, reflecting only a few percent of the light that strikes its surface, similar to a charcoal briquette. We learn this from the fact that Kerberos has one-third of Hydra's mass but reflects only 5% as much sunlight. This is a very surprising result--why should Kerberos be so different from the other moons? Credits: STScI and Mark Showalter, SETI Institute

(Artist conception) Using measurements of how much light the moons reflect, combined with estimates of their masses, we can now estimate the shapes and surface properties of three of the four small moons; Styx is too faint for this analysis. Nix and Hydra appear to be fairly bright objects, resembling dirty snow or desert sand. Their albedos are about 40%, which means that they reflect 40% of the sunlight that strikes them. Charon has just about the same albedo. Nix and Hydra are both highly elongated as well. Kerberos appears to be a much darker object, reflecting only a few percent of the light that strikes its surface, similar to a charcoal briquette. We learn this from the fact that Kerberos has one-third of Hydra’s mass but reflects only 5% as much sunlight. This is a very surprising result–why should Kerberos be so different from the other moons?
Credits: STScI and Mark Showalter, SETI Institute

If you lived on one of Pluto’s moons, you might have a hard time determining when, or from which direction, the sun will rise each day. Comprehensive analysis of data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows that two of Pluto’s moons, Nix and Hydra, wobble unpredictably.

“Hubble has provided a new view of Pluto and its moons revealing a cosmic dance with a chaotic rhythm,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “When the New Horizons spacecraft flies through the Pluto system in July we’ll get a chance to see what these moons look like up close and personal.”

The moons wobble because they’re embedded in a gravitational field that shifts constantly. This shift is created by the double planet system of Pluto and Charon as they whirl about each other. Pluto and Charon are called a double planet because they share a common center of gravity located in the space between the bodies. Their variable gravitational field sends the smaller moons tumbling erratically. The effect is strengthened by the football-like, rather than spherical, shape of the moons. Scientists believe it’s likely Pluto’s other two moons, Kerberos and Styx, are in a similar situation.

The astonishing results, found by Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and Doug Hamilton of the University of Maryland at College Park, will appear in the June 4 issue of the journal Nature.

“Prior to the Hubble observations, nobody appreciated the intricate dynamics of the Pluto system,” Showalter said. “Our research provides important new constraints on the sequence of events that led to the formation of the system.”

Showalter also found three of Pluto’s moons are presently locked together in resonance, meaning there is a precise ratio for their orbital periods.

“If you were sitting on Nix, you would see that Styx orbits Pluto twice for every three orbits made by Hydra,” noted Hamilton.

The Pluto system as we know it today. Four small moons--Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra, orbit the central "binary planet" comprising Pluto and its large, nearby moon Charon. Credits: NASA/STScI/Showalter

The Pluto system as we know it today. Four small moons–Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra, orbit the central “binary planet” comprising Pluto and its large, nearby moon Charon.
Credits: NASA/STScI/Showalter

Hubble data also reveal the moon Kerberos is as dark as a charcoal briquette, while the other frozen moons are as bright as sand. It was predicted that dust blasted off the moons by meteorite impacts should coat all the moons, giving their surfaces a homogenous look, which makes Kerberos’ coloring very surprising.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which will fly by the Pluto system in July, may help settle the question of the asphalt-black moon, as well as the other oddities uncovered by Hubble. These new discoveries are being used to plan science observations for the New Horizons flyby.

The turmoil within the Pluto-Charon system offers insights into how planetary bodies orbiting a double star might behave. For example, NASA’s Kepler space observatory has found several planetary systems orbiting double stars.

“We are learning chaos may be a common trait of binary systems,” Hamilton said. “It might even have consequences for life on planets if found in such systems.”

Clues to the Pluto commotion first came when astronomers measured variations in the light reflected off Nix and Hydra. Analyzing Hubble images of Pluto taken from 2005 to 2012, scientists compared the unpredictable changes in the moons’ brightness to models of spinning bodies in complex gravitational fields.

Pluto’s moons are believed to have been formed by a collision between the dwarf planet and a similar-sized body early in the history of our solar system. The smashup flung material that consolidated into the family of moons observed around Pluto today. Its binary companion, Charon, is almost half the size of Pluto and was discovered in 1978. Hubble discovered Nix and Hydra in 2005, Kerberos in 2011, and Styx in 2012. These little moons, measuring just tens of miles in diameter, were found during a Hubble search for objects that could be hazards to the New Horizons spacecraft as it passes the dwarf planet in July.

Researchers say a combination of Hubble data monitoring and New Horizon’s brief close-up look, as well as future observations with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will help settle many mysteries of the Pluto system. No ground-based telescopes have yet been able to detect the smallest moons.

“Pluto will continue to surprise us when New Horizons flies past it in July,” Showalter said. “Our work with the Hubble telescope just gives us a foretaste of what’s in store.”

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

For images and more information visit: http://www.nasa.gov/hubble and http://hubblesite.org/news/2015/24

(Artist conception) This is a numerical simulation of the orientation of Nix as seen from the center of the Pluto system. It has been sped up so that one orbit of Nix around Pluto takes 2 seconds instead of 25 days. Large wobbles are visible, and occasionally the pole flips over. This tumbling behavior meets the formal definition of chaos; the orientation of Nix is fundamentally unpredictable.Credits: STScI and Mark Showalter, SETI Institute

Credits: STScI and Mark Showalter, SETI Institute

 

Courtesy of NASA

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