Chaos Reigns At Pluto’s Moons


Simulation of Pluto’s moon Nix sped up so that one orbit takes 2 seconds instead of 25 days.

Wobbling and tumbling end-over-end like a badly thrown football, Pluto’s moons are in a state of orbital chaos, say scientists. Analysis of data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows that two of Pluto’s moons, Nix and Hydra, wobble unpredictably. If you lived on either, you’d never know when and in what direction the Sun would rise. One day it would pop up over your north horizon, the next over the western. Every sunset would be like a proverbial snowflake — not a single one the same.

Watch the video, and you’ll see what I mean. Not only does the moon totter, but the poles flip. If there was ever a solar system body to meet the criteria of end-of-the-world, doomsday crowd, Nix is it. The moons wobble because they’re embedded in the bizarro gravity field of the Pluto-Charon duo. Charon is officially the dwarf planet’s largest moon, but the two bodies act more like a double planet because Charon’s so huge.

OK, it’s only 750 miles (1,212 km) in diameter, but that’s half as big as Pluto. Imagine if our moon was twice as big as it is now, and you get the picture.

Charon is large compared to Pluto, so the orbit about their common center of gravity located in the space between the two bodies. Credit: Wikipedia
Charon is large compared to Pluto, so they orbit about their common center of gravity located in the space between the two bodies. Credit: Wikipedia

As the duo dances an orbital duet about their common center of gravity, their variable gravitational field sends the smaller moons tumbling erratically. The effect is enhanced even more by their irregular and elongated shapes. It’s likely Pluto’s other two moons, Kerberos and Styx, are in a similar situation.

Because their moment to moment motions are essentially unpredictable, scientists describe their behavior is chaotic. Saturn’s moon, Hyperion, also tumbles chaotically.

Pluto (upper right) and its largest moon Charon form a "double planet" as seen in this photo taken by NASA's New Horizons probe which is set to make a close flyby of the Pluto system on July 14. Credit: NASA / NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Pluto (upper right) and its largest moon Charon form a “double planet” as seen in this photo taken by NASA’s New Horizons probe which is set to make a close flyby of the Pluto system on July 14. Credit: NASA / NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

The discovery was made by Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute and Doug Hamilton of the University of Maryland using the Hubble Space Telescope and published in today’s issue of the journal Nature. Showalter also found three of Pluto’s moons are presently locked together in resonance, meaning there’s 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,” said Hamilton.

That’s not all. If you’ve ever grilled with charcoal, you’d have a good idea what Kerberos looks like. Dark as one those briquettes. The other moons are as bright as sand because they’re mostly made of ice. Astronomers had thought that material blasted off the moons by meteorite impacts should make them all the same basic tone, so what’s up with Kerberos? No one knows.

This illustration shows the scale and comparative brightness of Pluto’s small satellites. The surface craters are for illustration only and are not real. Credits: NASA/ESA/A. Feild (STScI)
This illustration shows the scale and comparative brightness of Pluto’s small satellites. The surface craters are for illustration only and are not real.
Credits: NASA/ESA/A. Feild (STScI)

Pluto’s moons are thought to have formed during a collision long ago between the dwarf planet and a similar-sized object. The smash-up created lots of smaller bodies that eventually took up orbits about the present-day Pluto. Outside of Charon, the biggest leftover, the other moons measure in the tens of miles across. The four little ones — Nix, Styx, Kerberos and Hydra — were discovered with the Hubble scope during surveys to better map the Pluto system before New Horizons arrives next month. No one would be surprised if even more itty-bitty moons are found as we draw ever closer to the dwarf planet.

Europa’s Hidden Great Lakes May Harbor Life

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New research on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa indicates the presence of a subsurface lake buried beneath frozen mounds of huge jumbled chunks of ice. While it has long been believed that Europa’s ice lies atop a deep underground ocean, these new findings support the possibility of large pockets of liquid water being much closer to the moon’s surface — as well as energy from the Sun — and ultimately boosting the possibility it could contain life.

During a press conference today, November 16 at 1 p.m. EST, researchers Britney Schmidt, Tori Hoeler, Louise Prockter and Tom Wagner presented new theories concerning the creation of “chaos terrain” on Europa.

Chaos terrain is exactly what it sounds like: irregularly-shaped landforms and surface textures on a world. In the case of Europa, the terrain is made of water ice that evidence shows has been loosened by the motion of liquid water beneath, expanded, and then has refrozen into hills and jagged mounds.

Topographic data shows the chaos terrain elevations above the surrounding surface. Reds and purples are the highest elevations. Credit: NASA

These mounds are visible in topographic data acquired by the Galileo spacecraft in 1998.

During the presentation a good analogy for the processes at work on Europa was made by Britney Schmidt, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Geophysics, University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the paper. She demonstrated the formation of Europa’s “mosh pit of icebergs” using a drinking glass partially filled with ice cubes. When water was added to the glass, the ice cubes naturally rose up and shifted orientation. Should the water beneath them refreeze, as it would in the frigid environments found in the Jovian system, the ice cubes would be held fast in their new expanded, “chaotic” positions.

“Now we see evidence that it’s a thick ice shell that can mix vigorously, and new evidence for giant shallow lakes. That could make Europa and its ocean more habitable.”

– Britney Schmidt, lead author

Similar processes have also been seen occurring on Earth, both in Antarctica along the edges of ice shelves and in Greenland, where glaciers continually break apart and flow into the sea – often rolling over themselves and each other in the process.

Europa's "Great Lake." Scientists speculate many more exist throughout the shallow regions of the moon's icy shell. Image Credit: Britney Schmidt/Dead Pixel FX/Univ. of Texas at Austin.

The importance of these findings is that scientists finally have a model that demonstrates how Europa’s deep liquid ocean interacts with the ice near its surface in such a way as to allow for the transportation of energy and nutrients.

“This is the first time that anyone has come up with an end-to-end model that explains what we see on the surface,” said APL senior planetary scientist Louise Prockter.

With such strong evidence for this process, the likelihood that Europa could harbor environments friendly to life goes up dramatically.

“The potential for exchange of material between the surface and subsurface is a big key for astrobiology,” said Wes Patterson, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and a co-author of the study. “Europa’s subsurface harbors much of what we believe is necessary for life but chemical nutrients found at the surface are likely vital for driving biology.”

Although the research favors the existence of these lakes, however, confirmation of such has not yet been found. That will require a future mission to Europa and the direct investigation of its icy surface – and what lies beneath.

Luckily a Europa mission was recently rated as one of the highest priority flagship missions by the National Research Council’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey and is currently being studied by NASA.

“If we’re ever to send a landed mission to Europa, these areas would be great places to study,” Prockter said.

Read more about this discovery in the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory press release, or in the NASA news release here. Also, watch the full conference recorded on Ustream below: