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Dance of Pluto's moons may hint at past collisions

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Oct 14, 2013, 0:00 UTC

Sen—A large impact 4 billion years ago may account for the puzzling orbital configuration among Pluto's five known satellites.

Starting with Charon, Pluto's nearest and largest moon, each of the successively more distant, and smaller moons orbit Pluto according to a steadily increasing factor of Charon's own orbital period. The small satellites, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra, have orbital periods that are almost exactly 3, 4, 5 and 6 times longer than Charon's.

"Their distance from Pluto and the orbital arrangement of the satellites has been a challenge for theories of the small satellites' formation," said lead investigator Dr. Harold "Hal" Levison, an Institute scientist in Southwest Research Institute's (SwRI) Planetary Science Directorate at Boulder, Colorado.

"Models for the formation of Charon leave plenty of small satellites, but all of them are much closer to Pluto than the current system that we see today,” said Levison. A major problem has been understanding how to move these satellites outward, but not lose them from the Pluto-Charon system or have them crash into Charon. He said, “This configuration suggests that we have been missing some important mechanism to transport material around in this system."

Pluto and its five moons imaged by Hubble

This image, taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, shows the five known moons orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet Pluto. P4 has subsequently been named Kerberos, and P5 has been named Styx. Image credit: NASA

The SwRI study considered the earliest and most dynamic epoch of the Pluto/Charon system, when it is thought that Charon was formed by a large impact. Any initially surviving satellites would likely be destroyed in collisions, but these shattered moons wouldn’t be lost. Instead their remains would stay in the Pluto/Charon system and become the starting point for building new satellites. There would have been many generations of satellite systems over the history of Pluto and Charon.

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.

Charon is 1/10 the mass of Pluto (our Moon is just 1/81 the mass of Earth), and so it could rapidly slingshot the small satellites outward if they were to approach too closely. At the same time collisions among small satellites could change orbits to clear them away from Charon. This combination leads to a series of satellites colliding, breaking to pieces, moving outward and then rebuilding.

"The implications for this result are that the current small satellites are the last generation of many previous generations of satellites," said Dr. Kevin Walsh, another investigator and a research scientist in SwRI's Planetary Science Directorate. "They were probably first formed around 4 billion years ago, and after an eventful million years of breaking and rebuilding, have survived in their current configuration ever since."

Hopefully NASA's New Horizons mission will be able to tell us more when it arrives at the Pluto/Charon system in 2015.