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A Crash Put Pluto’s Moons Into Odd Orbits: Study

Pluto's solar system in a 2012 artist's conception. P4 and P5 are now called Kerberos and Styx, respectively. Credit: NASA/John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Pluto’s solar system in a 2012 artist’s conception. P4 and P5 are now called Kerberos and Styx, respectively. Credit: NASA/John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

A smash-up that created Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, likely sprayed debris four billion years ago that formed the genesis of the other moons scientists are spotting today, a new study concludes.

The find could explain why the satellites Styx, Nix, Kereberos and Hydra have orbital periods that are, respectively, just about exactly 3, 4, 5 and 6 times longer than Charon’s, scientists said.

“Any initially surviving satellites would likely be destroyed in collisions, but these shattered moons wouldn’t be lost; rather, their remains would stay in the Pluto/Charon system and become the starting point for building new satellites,” stated the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI), which led the study.

Artist's impression of New Horizons' encounter with Pluto and Charon. Credit: NASA/Thierry Lombry

Artist’s impression of New Horizons’ encounter with Pluto and Charon. Credit: NASA/Thierry Lombry

“In modeling the destruction of the satellites, the SWRI study found that there may be a method for moving them, or their building blocks, outward, due to the competing effects of Charon’s gravitational kicks and collisions among the debris of the disrupted satellites.”

Given Charon’s large size relative to Pluto (it’s a tenth of the dwarf planet’s size, compared to the Earth-Moon 81: 1 ratio), its large mass could easily perturb these smaller moons if they got close. Also, collisions between the debris could alter the orbits “to keep things away from Charon”, the scientists said.

Hopefully we will learn more when the NASA New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto in 2015.

The findings were presented yesterday (Oct. 9) at the American Astronomical Association’s division of planetary sciences meeting in Denver; information on whether the results are peer-reviewed was not immediately available.

Source: Southwest Research Institute

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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