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!
Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: This week we welcome Stephen Fowler, who is the Creative Director at InfoAge, the organization behind refurbishing the TIROS 1 dish and the Science History Learning Center and Museum at Camp Evans, Wall, NJ.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”