WASHINGTON (TIP): NASA’s Hubble space telescope has provided the first glimpse of Pluto’s moons that wobble unpredictably, tumbling in absolute chaos.
It means if you lived on one of Pluto’s moons, you might have a hard time determining when, or from which direction, the Sun will rise each day.
“Hubble has provided a new view of Pluto and its moons revealing a cosmic dance with a chaotic rhythm,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.
When the New Horizons spacecraft flies through the Pluto system in July, we will get a chance to see what these moons look like up close and personal, he added in a NASA statement.
Comprehensive analysis of the data shows that two of Pluto’s moons, Nix and Hydra, wobble unpredictably.
The moons wobble because they are embedded in a gravitational field that shifts constantly.
This shift is created by the double planet system of Pluto and Charon as they whirl about each other.
Pluto and Charon are called a double planet because they share a common centre of gravity located in the space between the bodies.
Their variable gravitational field sends the smaller moons tumbling erratically.
The effect is strengthened by the football-like, rather than spherical, shape of the moons.
Scientists believe it is likely that Pluto’s other two moons, Kerberos and Styx, are in a similar situation.
The astonishing results were found by Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and Doug Hamilton of the University of Maryland at College Park.
They also found three of Pluto’s moons are presently locked together in resonance, meaning there is a precise ratio for their orbital periods.
“We are learning chaos may be a common trait of binary systems,” Hamilton said. “It might even have consequences for life on planets if found in such systems.”
“Pluto will continue to surprise us when New Horizons flies past it in July,” Showalter said.
The New Horizons spacecraft may help settle the oddities uncovered by Hubble. The new findings will also provide important new constraints on the sequence of events that led to the formation of the system.