Recently astronomers made a fascinating discovery when they were probing in space looking around dwarf planet Pluto. NASA scientists were actually searching for rings around the icy planet when they stumbled upon the astonishing fact that Pluto has a fourth moon.
The moon was found on June 28 and images were taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The pictures illuminated a total of four moons circling Pluto; the newest moon has been temporarily dubbed P4 until a more suitable name is decided upon.
According to NASA's press release, "P4 is the smallest moon yet found around Pluto, with an estimated diameter of 8 to 21 miles (13 to 34 km)." Scientists estimated the newly discovered moon orbits Pluto approximately once every 31 days.
Pluto's other moons are larger. NASA reports Charon is 746 miles across, and the other two moons, Nix and Hydra, are 20 to 70 miles in diameter. The latter moons were discovered in 2005 and P4 sits between the two small moons. The massive, in comparison, Charon moon was found back in 1978.
A mission is planned in 2015 to survey Pluto's solar system and this new discovery will be helpful to astronomers as they prepare for their exploration. After the June 28 discovery, subsequent images were taken on July 3 and July 18 to try and capture more detail on P4.
NASA reports, "This is a fantastic discovery," said New Horizons' principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. "Now that we know there's another moon in the Pluto system, we can plan close-up observations of it during our flyby."
New Horizons is a Lockheed Martin created spacecraft and was launched in 2006 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The craft is currently just over half-way to Pluto.
Scientists are theorizing that P4 may have been created during a collision between Pluto and another large celestial body. This theory aligns with the hypothesis that Earth's moon was created 4.4 million years ago when Earth collided with another Mars-sized body.
While astronomers didn't bargain to find an additional moon, this discovery opens the door to learn more about far-away planets and the relationships on how the various types of space bodies are made. Armed with information about P4, when New Horizons arrives in the Pluto solar system in 2015, some enlightening information may be brought back that helps society better understand the vast area known as space.
In the meantime, P4 still needs a name. International Business Times reports a recent Facebook poll offered by astronomy site Space.com resulted in some remarkable options such as Mickey, Hades, Erebus, Styx, Goofy, Cerberus and Snape. Currently "Mickey" is in the lead.
The name will eventually be decided by the International Astronomical Union, keeping the disocvery astronomer Mark Showalter, SETI Institute in California, in mind. Showalter reportedly will be submitting his own recommendations in the near future.