Virtually every planet in the Solar System has moons. Earth has The Moon, Mars has Phobos and Deimos, and Jupiter and Saturn have 67 and 62 officially named moons, respectively. Heck, even the recently-demoted dwarf planet Pluto has five confirmed moons – Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. And even asteroids like 243 Ida may have satellites orbiting them (in this case, Dactyl). But what about Mercury?
If moons are such a common feature in the Solar System, why is it that Mercury has none? Yes, if one were to ask how many satellites the planet closest to our Sun has, that would be the short answer. But answering it more thoroughly requires that we examine the process through which other planets acquired their moons, and seeing how these apply (or fail to apply) to Mercury.
Over the course of the past decade, many amazing discoveries have been made at the edge of the Solar System. Thanks to the work of astronomers working out of Earth-based observatories, with the Hubble Space Telescope, and those behind the recent New Horizons mission, not only have new objects been discovered, but additional discoveries have been made about the ones we already knew about.
For example, in 2005, two additional satellites were discovered in orbit of Pluto – Hydra and Nix. The discovery of these moons (which has since been followed by the discovery of two more) has taught astronomers much about the far-flung system of Pluto, and helped to advance our understanding of the Kuiper Belt.
Discovery and Naming:
Nix was discovered in June of 2005 by the Hubble Space Telescope Pluto Companion Search Team, using discovery images that were taken on May 15th and 18th, 2005. The team was composed of Hal A. Weaver, Alan Stern, Max J. Mutchler, Andrew J. Steffl, Marc W. Buie, William J. Merline, John R. Spencer, Eliot F. Young, and Leslie A. Young.
Nix and Hydra were also independently discovered by Max J. Mutchler on June 15th, 2005, and by Andrew J. Steffl on August 15th, 2005. At the time, Nix was given the provisional designation of S/2005 P 2 and casually referred to as “P2”. Once pre-recovery images from 2002 were confirmed, the discoveries were announced on October 31st, 2005.
In accordance with IAU guidelines concerning the naming of satellites in the Solar System, the moon was named Nix. Derived from Greek mythology, Nix is the goddess of darkness and night, the mother of Charon and the ferryman of Hades (the Greek equivalent of Pluto) who brought the souls of the dead to the underworld.
The name was officially announced on June 21st, 2006, in an IAU Circular, where the designation “Pluto II” is also given. The initials N and H (for Nix and Hydra) were also a deliberate reference to the New Horizons mission, which would be conducting a flyby of the Pluto system in less than ten years time after the announcement was made.
Size, Mass and Orbit: Based on observations with the Hubble Space Telescope of Nix’s geometric albedo and shape, the satellite was estimated to measure 56.3 km (35 mi) along its longest axis and 25.7 km (16 mi) wide. However, images provided by the New Horizons’ Ralph instrument on July 14th, 2015, indicated that Nix measures 42 km (26 mi) in length and 36 km (22 mi) wide.
Nix follows a circular orbit with very little eccentricity (0.0020) and a low inclination of approximately 0.13°. It is in the same orbital plane as Charon, is in a 3:2 orbital resonance with Hydra, and a 9:11 resonance with Styx. Its orbital period is roughly 24.9 days, meaning it takes about 25 days to complete a single orbit of Pluto.
As with Hydra and perhaps the other small Plutonian moons, Nix rotates chaotically, which is due mainly to its oblong shape. This means that the moon’s axial tilt and day length vary greatly over short timescales, to the point that it regularly flips over.
From these observations, it is likely that the surface of Nix is composed primarily of water ice (like Hydra) and may or may also have trace amount of methane ice on its surface. If true, then the exposure of these deposits of methane ice to ultra-violet radiation from the Sun would result in the presence of tholins, which would give it a reddish hue.
However, when the New Horizons space probe photographed Hydra and Nix during its flyby of the Pluto system, it spotted a large region with a distinctive red tint, probably a crater. The appearance of this surface region – a spot of red against an otherwise grey landscape – may explain these conflicting results.
Exploration: Thus far, only one mission has been performed to the Pluto system that resulted in close-up and detailed photographs of Nix. This would be the New Horizons mission, which flew through the Pluto-Charon system on July 14th, 2015 and photographed Hydra and Nix from an approximate distance of 640,000 km (400,000 mi).
Until July 13th, 2015, when NASA’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on board New Horizons determined Nix’s dimensions, its size was unknown. More images and information will be downloaded from the spacecraft between now and late 2016.
Prior to the discovery of Hydra and Nix in 2005, Pluto was believed to share its orbit with only the satellite of Charon – hence why astronomers often refer to it as the “Pluto-Charon system”. However, since the discovery of these two additional satellites in 2005, two more have been discovered – Kerberos in July of 2011 and Styx in July of 2012.
This raises the number of bodes in the Pluto-Charon system to one primary and five satellites. And thanks to the recent New Horizons flyby, we got to see all of them up close for the first time!
Like most large bodies in the Kuiper Belt (not to mention their satellites) much remains to be learned about Nix and its companions. In time, and with more missions to the outer Solar System, we are sure to address many of the mysteries surrounding this particular satellite, and will probably find many more waiting for us!
We have written many interesting articles on Pluto, its system of moons and the Kuiper Belt here at Universe Today.
Of course they’ve always been real worlds. They just never looked that way. We’ve only known of their existence since 2005, when astronomers with the Pluto Companion Search Team spotted them using the Hubble Space Telescope. Never more than faint points of light, each is now revealed as a distinct, if tiny, world.
“Before last week, Hydra was just a faint point of light, so it’s a surreal experience to see it become an actual place, as we see its shape and spot recognizable features on its surface for the first time,” said New Horizons mission science collaborator Ted Stryk.
Nix looks like a strawberry-flavored jelly bean, but that reddish region with its vaguely bulls-eye shape hints at a possible crater on this 26 miles (42 km) long by 22 miles (36 km) wide moon. Hydra, which measures 34 x 25 miles (55 x 40 km), displays two large craters, one tilted to face the Sun (top) and the other almost fully in shadow. Differences in brightness across Hydra suggest differences in surface composition.
Now we’ve seen three of Pluto’ family of five satellites. Expect images of Pluto’s most recently discovered moons, Styx and Kerberos, to be transmitted to Earth no later than mid-October.
All of Pluto’s satellites are believed to have been created in what’s now referred to as “The Big Whack”, a long-ago collision between Pluto and another planetary body. A similar scenario probably played out at Earth as well, leading to the formation of our own Moon. In Pluto’s case, most of the material pulled together to form Charon; the leftover chips became the smaller satellites. Their sizes are too small for self-gravity to crush them into spheres, hence their irregular shapes. The moons’ neatly circular orbits about Pluto suggest they formed together rather than being captured willy-nilly from the Kuiper Belt.
Update: This just in. Take a look at this new close-up of Pluto that features a newly discovered mountain range in southwestern Tombaugh Regio. Sure looks like ice flows. This is a complex little dwarf planet!
Below we have a special treat just in this morning (July 22) — mosaics and montages of Pluto and family created by Damian Peach from New Horizons images. Be sure to click to see the hi-res versions. Enjoy!
Measurements by New Horizons gathered just in the past few days as the spacecraft barrels towards the Pluto planetary system now confirm that Pluto is indeed the biggest object in the vast region beyond the orbit of Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.
Pluto is thus the undisputed King of the Kuiper Belt!
Pluto measures 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter, which is at the higher end of the range of previous estimates.
The big news was announced today, by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, during a live media briefing at Pluto mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.
“This settles the debate about the largest object in the Kuiper Belt,” Stern noted.
New Horizons will swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,750 miles) of Pluto’s surface and about 17,900 miles (28,800 kilometers) from Charon during closest approach at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14.
The new and definitive measurement of Pluto’s size is based on images taken by the high resolution Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to make this determination.
“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon, Washington University, St. Louis.
Pluto was the first planet discovered by an American, Clyde Tombaugh.
Pluto is bigger than Eris, another big Kuiper Belt object discovered in 2005 by Mike Brown of Caltech, which is much further out from the Sun than Pluto. The discovery of Eris further fueled the controversial debate about the status of Pluto’s planethood.
Eris comes in second in size in the Kuiper Belt at only 1,445 miles (2,326 km) in diameter.
Stern also noted that because Pluto is slight bigger than the average of previous estimates, its density is slightly lower than previously thought. Therefore the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher and the fraction of rock is slightly lower. But further data is required to pin the density down more precisely.
The uncertainty in Pluto’s size has persisted for decades and was due to the fact that Pluto has a very tenuous atmosphere composed of nitrogen.
Furthermore Pluto’s lowest atmospheric layer called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed.
On the other hand, its largest moon Charon with which it forms a double planet, lacks a substantial atmosphere and its size was known with near certainty based on ground-based telescopic observation.
New Horizons LORRI imagery has confirmed that Charon measures 751 miles (1208 km) kilometers) across.
Stern also confirmed that frigid Pluto also has a polar cap composed of methane and nitrogen ices based on measurements from the Alice instrument.
LORRI has also zoomed in on two of Pluto’s smaller moons, Nix and Hydra.
“We knew from the time we designed our flyby that we would only be able to study the small moons in detail for just a few days before closest approach,” said Stern. “Now, deep inside Pluto’s sphere of influence, that time has come.”
But because they are so small, accurate measurement with LORRI could only be made in the final week prior to the July 14 flyby.
Nix is estimated to be about 20 miles (about 35 kilometers) across, while Hydra is roughly 30 miles (roughly 45 kilometers) across. These sizes lead mission scientists to conclude that their surfaces are quite bright, possibly due to the presence of ice.
Determinations about Pluto’s two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx, will be made later at some point during the 16-month long playback of data after the July 14 encounter.
It has been three decades since we last visited planetary bodies at the outer reaches of our solar system when Voyager 2 flew past Uranus and Neptune in 1986 and 1989.
New Horizons is closing in fast on its quarry at a whopping 31,000 mph (49,600 kph) after a nine year interplanetary voyage and is now less than half a million miles away, in the final hours before closest approach.
The New Frontiers spacecraft was built by a team led by Stern and included researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL also operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission.
Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of the Pluto flyby on July 14 from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Now on the final leg of its journey to distant Pluto the New Horizons spacecraft has been able to spot not only the dwarf planet and its largest moon Charon, but also two of its much smaller moons, Hydra and Nix – the latter for the very first time!
The animation above comprises seven frames made of images acquired by New Horizons from Jan. 27 to Feb. 8, 2015 while the spacecraft was closing in on 115 million miles (186 million km) from Pluto. Hydra is noted by a yellow box and Nix is in the orange. (See a version of the animation with some of the background stars and noise cleared out here.)
“Professor Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto was far ahead its time, heralding the discovery of the Kuiper Belt and a new class of planet. The New Horizons team salutes his historic accomplishment.”
– Alan Stern, New Horizons PI, Southwest Research Institute
Launched Jan. 19, 2006, New Horizons will make its closest pass of Pluto and Charon on July 14 of this year. It is currently 32.39 AU from Earth – over 4.84 billion kilometers away.
“It’s thrilling to watch the details of the Pluto system emerge as we close the distance to the spacecraft’s July 14 encounter,” said New Horizons science team member John Spencer from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). “This first good view of Nix and Hydra marks another major milestone, and a perfect way to celebrate the anniversary of Pluto’s discovery.”
Along with the distance between Earth and Pluto, New Horizons is also bridging the gap of history: a portion of Mr. Tombaugh’s ashes are being carried aboard the spacecraft, as well as several historic mementos.
Each frame in the animation is a combination of five 10-second images taken with New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) using a special mode that increases sensitivity at the expense of resolution. Celestial north is inclined 28 degrees clockwise from the “up” direction in these images.
The dark streaks are a result of overexposure on the digital camera’s sensitive detector.
Pluto has a total of five known moons: Charon, Hydra, Nix, Styx, and Kerberos. Pluto and Charon are within the glare of the image exposures and can’t be resolved separately, and Styx and Kerberos are too dim to be detected yet. But Hydra and Nix, each around 25–95 miles (40–150 km) in diameter, could be captured on camera.
More precise measurements of these moons’ sizes – and whether or not there may be even more satellites in the Pluto system – will be determined as New Horizons approaches its July flyby date.
Here’s Hydra! The New Horizons team spotted the tiny moon of Pluto in July, about six months ahead of when they expected to. You can check it out in the images below. The find is exciting in itself, but it also bodes well for the spacecraft’s search for orbital debris to prepare for its close encounter with the system in July 2015.
Most of Pluto’s moons were discovered while New Horizons was under development, or already on its way. Mission planners are thus concerned that there could be moons out there that aren’t discovered yet — moons that could pose a danger to the spacecraft if it ended up in the wrong spot at the wrong time. That’s why the team is engaging in long-range views to see what else is lurking in Pluto’s vicinity.
“We’re thrilled to see it, because it shows that our satellite-search techniques work, and that our camera is operating superbly. But it’s also exciting just to see a third member of the Pluto system come into view, as proof that we’re almost there,” stated science team member John Spencer, of the Southwest Research Institute.
Hydra was spotted using the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which took 48 images of 10 seconds apiece between July 18 and July 20. Then the team used half the images, the ones that show Hydra better, to create the images you see above.
The spacecraft was still 267 million miles (430 million kilometers) from Pluto when the images were taken. Another moon discovered around the same time as Hydra — Nix — is still too close to be seen given it’s so close to Pluto, but just wait.
Meanwhile, scientists are busily trying to figure out where to send New Horizons after Pluto. In July, researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope began a full-scale search for a suitable Kuiper Belt Object, which would be one of trillions of icy or rocky objects beyond Neptune’s orbit. Flying past a KBO would provide more clues as to how the Solar System formed, since these objects are considered leftovers of the chunks of matter that came together to form the planets.
Let’s just casually look at this image of a galaxy 86 million light-years away from us. In the center of this incredible image is a bright loop that you can see surrounding the heart of the galaxy. That is where stars are being born, say the scientists behind this new Hubble Space Telescope image.
“Compared to other spiral galaxies, it looks a little different,” NASA stated. “The galaxy’s barred spiral center is surrounded by a bright loop known as a resonance ring. This ring is full of bright clusters and bursts of new star formation, and frames the supermassive black hole thought to be lurking within NGC 3081 — which glows brightly as it hungrily gobbles up in-falling material.”
A “resonance ring” refers to an area where gravity causes gas to stick around in certain areas, and can be the result of a ring (like you see in NGC 3081) or close-by objects with a lot of gravity. Scientists added that NGC 3081, which is in the constellation Hydra or the Sea Serpent, is just one of many examples of barred galaxies with this type of resonance.
By the way, this image is a combination of several types of light: optical, infrared and ultraviolet.
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.
“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.
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.
With the New Horizons spacecraft on its way to Pluto, there may be an intriguing additional task for the mission’s science team: look for a potential ring around Pluto and its moons. Researchers at The Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil have recently submitted a paper for publication in which they explore the possibility of a ring system around the Pluto-Charon system. In their paper, the team discusses the effects of micrometeoroid impacts on Nix and Hydra and how the resulting dust particles could form a ring around Pluto. The team also investigates forces, such as the solar wind, which would dissipate said ring system.
Pryscilla Maria Pires dos Santos and her team provide an exhaustive list of calculations in their paper which estimates the ring system to have a diameter of nearly 16,000 kilometers – well outside the orbits of Nix and Hydra. Based on their calculations, Pires dos Santos state that despite nearly 50% of the ring’s mass being dissipated within a year, a tenuous ring system can be maintained by the dust expelled by micrometeoroid impacts.
Additional data presented in the paper places the rings “optical depth” as being several orders of magnitude fainter than even Jupiter’s rings. (Yes, Jupiter has a ring system!) While ground-based observatories and even the Hubble Space Telescope haven’t detected the ring system Pires dos Santos et al. are hopeful that the New Horizons mission will provide data to validate their theoretical models. New Horizons has a dust counter capable of measuring dust grains with a minimum mass of 10-12 grams, which should provide the data required to support or refute the team’s models.
Pires dos Santos mentions: “It is worth to point out that the interplanetary environment in the outer Solar System is not well known. Many assumptions have to be made in order to estimate a normal optical depth of a putative ring encompassing the orbits of Nix and Hydra.”