Discovery Of Fifth Pluto Moon Concerns NASA

By  //  October 17, 2012

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Spacecraft May Have To Alter Course


BREVARD COUNTY • KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA –  The discovery of a fifth moon orbiting Pluto by the Hubble Space Telescope this summer may have a significant impact on a NASA mission currently on its way to the explore the dwarf planet.

The orbits of Pluto’s five known moons are shown, including the just-discovered “P5,”moon. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will pass just 6,200 miles from Pluto in July 2015. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Pluto’s latest moon, which is called P5, was detected in nine separate sets of images taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on June 26, June 27, June 29, July 7 and July 9. This new find boosts Pluto’s known moons to a total of five.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make a flyby of Pluto in 2015 and avoiding debris and undiscovered moons is paramount to that mission.

Astronomers say the newly found moon is irregular in shape, about 6 to 15 miles in length and has a 58,000-mile-diameter circular orbit of Pluto separate from its other existing satellites.

The largest moon of Pluto is called Charon and was first reported in 1978 by the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

Two smaller moons, Nix and Hydra, were first observed by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2006.

Hubble research also revealed a fourth moon of Pluto called “P4” last year.

“The moons form a series of neatly nested orbits, a bit like Russian dolls,” said astronomer Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

Showalter said astronomers studying Pluto team are fascinated that the dwarf planet has so many moons.

It is hoped that the newly found moon will assist astronomers in learning how Pluto was formed.

The position of the newly discovered P5 moon of Pluto is shown in this diagram. (Image courtesy NASA)

A prevailing hypothesis among astronomers is that Pluto’s moons were created billions of years ago during a violent collision between an asteroid and the planet.

And the discovery of a previously unknown moon could mean that debris from its formation could be in the path the New Horizons spacecraft is heading.

Because of the speed in which the New Horizons spacecraft is moving to reach Pluto — some 30,000 mph — collisions with tiny debris objects might render the spacecraft inoperative.

To that end, NASA’s New Horizons team announced Wednesday that is is currently using high-tech computer debris stability simulations, large Earth telescopes to examine  the Pluto system and the Hubble  Space Telescope in a search for harmful debris orbiting Pluto.

If such debris is found, NASA will revert to a pre-established backup plan, which calls for an alternative more distant flyby of the Pluto system.

New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Jan. 17, 2006.