How Many Moons Does Mercury Have?

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.

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Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 30, 2015: Yoav Landsman and the Enceladus Flyby

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Yoav Landsman,WSH Crew Member; Principal System Engineer at SpaceIL; member of first GLXP to “hitch a ride.”

Pamela Gay ( / @cosmoquestx / @starstryder)
Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg )
Paul Sutter ( / @PaulMattSutter)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz /
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
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Pluto’s Moon Nix

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 PlutoHydra 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.

The discovery images of Nix (and Hydra) obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI)
The discovery images of Nix (and Hydra) obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI)

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.

Images acquired by the New Horizon's probe of Nix (left) and Hydra (right). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Images acquired by the New Horizon’s probe of Nix (left) and Hydra (right) on July 14th, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

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.

Early observations conducted by Marc W. Buie and William M. Grundy at the Lowell Observatory appeared to show that Nix has a reddish color like Pluto, but unlike any of its other moons. However, more-recent studies conducted by S. Alan Stern et al. using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), have indicated that it is likely as grey as the remaining satellites.

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.

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.

Here’s Moons of Pluto, Pluto’s New Moons are Named Nix and Hydra, and Pluto’s Moons Nix and Hydra Get Real.

And here’s New Horizons Now Close Enough to See Pluto’s Smaller Moons, and Fifth Moon Found Around Pluto.

Astronomy Cast has a wonderful episode on the New Horizons mission, titled On Pluto’s Doorstep – Live Hangout with New Horizons Team.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration: Nix and’s page on updated images of Nix and Pluto’s other moons..

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.

Weekly Space Hangout – May 23, 2015: Dr. Rhys Taylor

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest:Dr. Rhys Taylor, Former Arecibo Post Doc; Current research involves looking for galaxies in the 21cm waveband.

Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
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A Crash Put Pluto’s Moons Into Odd Orbits: Study

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

Vulcan Loses In Pluto Moons Name Game. Did the IAU Choose Wisely?

It looks like Vulcan was not the logical choice for the International Astronomical Union when it came to naming Pluto’s new moons.

The internationally recognized body for astronomy names selected Kerberos and Styx as the new names for Plutonian moons P4 and P5, respectively. While these names were popular in a public vote last year concerning Pluto’s new moons, Vulcan — the overwhelming favorite, and backed by none other than Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk (William Shatner) — was not selected.

The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) said Vulcan, which was first popularized in the 1960s as the home world of Star Trek character Spock, was considered.

“The IAU gave serious consideration to this name, which happens to be shared by the Roman god of volcanoes. However, because that name has already been used in astronomy, and because the Roman god is not closely associated with Pluto, this proposal was rejected,” a release stated.

Vulcan was previously used as the name for a hypothetical world in the interior of Mercury’s orbit, but that idea has since been discredited. (More on Universe Today writer David Dickinson’s website.)

Kirk's evil twin.  Credit: Paramount
Vulcan received the support of William Shatner, pictured here in his Star Trek role as Captain James Kirk. Credit: Paramount

There will be more about Styx and Kerberos in this SETI-hosted Google Hangout, which will be held live starting at noon Eastern (4 p.m. GMT).

Kerberos is a three-headed dog in Greek mythology and Styx a mythological river that is the boundary between the living world and that of the dead. These are fitting names given Pluto’s other moons: Charon, Nix and Hydra, all of which meet the IAU’s rules to name them after Greek and Roman underworld personas.

We’ll get a closer look at these strange new worlds in 2015, when the New Horizons spacecraft skims through the Pluto system. There may be other, tiny moons lurking around the dwarf planet that New Horizons could find.

Do you feel the IAU made the right choice? It’s not the first time it waded into tricky waters concerning Pluto; some in the public still complain today about the decision to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status in 2006.

Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Source: SETI