Pluto Moons Dance in Chaotic Orbit

Posted June 5th, 2015 at 3:50 pm (UTC-5)
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This set of computer modeling illustrations of Pluto’s moon Nix shows how the orientation of the moon changes unpredictably as it orbits the “double planet” Pluto-Charon. (NASA/ESA/M. Showalter (SETI)/G. Bacon (STScI))

This set of computer modeling illustrations of Pluto’s moon Nix shows how the orientation of the moon changes unpredictably as it orbits the “double planet” Pluto-Charon. (NASA/ESA/M. Showalter (SETI)/G. Bacon (STScI))

Pluto and its moons seem to be engaged in a kind of chaotic dance routine with each other.

After a thorough analysis of data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA scientists found that Nix and Hydra – two of Pluto’s five known moons – are wobbling and behaving erratically as they orbit the distant dwarf planet.

The scientists believe that the moons may be embedded within what has been described as a dynamically shifting gravitational field. Another factor could be their elliptical shape.

The gravitational field is generated by Pluto and its moon Charon because both orbit a common center of gravity. Charon is so large that it is considered by some to be Pluto’s twin planet.

Although further study is needed, scientists also believe that Kerberos and Styx – the other two moons of Pluto – may be moving in a similar manner.

NASA believes that the newly observed mayhem Pluto, Charon and its other four moons generate might provide scientists with a better understanding of the behavior of exoplanets in a binary star system.

While Hubble’s data analysis provided fresh evidence about the strange behavior of the moons, NASA said its New Horizons spacecraft, which will fly by the planet in July, will provide a better opportunity to observe Pluto, its moons, and their relationship with each other.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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