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Astronomers discover 3 small moons orbiting Uranus and Neptune

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Astronomers from the International Astronomical Union have discovered three previously unknown moons on the most distant planets in our solar system – two orbiting Neptune and one orbiting Uranus.

The moons were spotted using powerful ground-based telescopes at various sites around the world. The latest discovery places Uranus at 28 known moons and Neptune at 16.

A moon orbiting Uranus is so small that it measures only eight kilometers in diameter.

“The three newly discovered moons are the faintest ever discovered around these two ice giant planets using ground-based telescopes,” said Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution. for Science, declared in a statement Friday. “It took special image processing to reveal such faint objects.”

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A discovery image of the new Uranian moon S/2023 U1 taken using the Magellan telescope on November 4, 2023.

Scott Sheppard/Carnegie Institute for Science


Astronomers hope the discovery will provide insight into how these moons formed, the tumultuous early years of our solar system, and the movement of planets at the system’s outer edges.

Astronomers also hypothesize that these new moons were captured by the gravity of Uranus and Neptune during or shortly after their formation.

How did astronomers find the new moons?

Dozens of long-exposure photographs taken over several nights by some of the world’s largest telescopes have allowed astronomers to observe the surroundings of Uranus and Neptune in greater detail than before.

“Because moons move in just minutes compared to background stars and galaxies, single long exposures are not ideal for capturing deep images of moving objects,” Sheppard said in the press release. . “

By superimposing these multiple exposures, stars and galaxies will appear with trails behind them, and moving objects similar to the host planet will be seen as point sources, making the moons stand out behind the background noise of the images,” added Sheppard.

Sheppard used the Magellan Telescope in Chile to find the brighter of the two Neptunian moons. Working with David Tholen of the University of Hawaii, Chad Trujillo of Northern Arizona University, and Patryk Sofia Lykawa of Kindai University in Japan, he discovered the fainter new Neptunian moon using the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.

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Aerial view of the Las Campanas Observatory, owned and operated by the Carnegie Institution for Science on behalf of the Magellan Consortium, in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile, taken October 15, 2021.

MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images


The two moons were first seen in September 2021.

The brighter of Neptune’s two moons is about 23 kilometers (about 14 miles) long and takes nearly nine years to orbit the ice giant. The “faint” moon takes about 27 years – the longest known orbital journey of a moon – to complete one revolution, according to Sheppard.

Uranus’ new moon was first spotted in November 2023, also using the Magellan telescope. Sheppard made follow-up observations a month later. With collaborators, he was able to locate the moon in older images he had taken in 2021 at Magellan, as well as at the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.

The Uranian moon is about 8 kilometers or 5 miles long and takes 680 days to orbit the planet.

What will the newly discovered moons be named?

The latest discovery orbiting Uranus is the first of its kind in more than 20 years. Tentatively named S/2023 U1, the newly discovered moon will likely be named after a character in a Shakespeare play, in the tradition of other moons orbiting the planet.

The planet’s five major moons – Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon – are known as the “literary moons.” according to NASA. They are named after Shakespearean characters alongside a few named after characters from the works of Alexander Pope.

Neptune is named after the Roman god of the sea. Its largest moon, Triton, was discovered in 1846 by English astronomer William Lassell, 17 days after the planet was discovered by German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle.

The planet’s two newly discovered moons – S/2021 N1 and S/2002 N5 – will eventually receive permanent names based on the 50 Nereid sea goddesses of Greek mythology, NASA noted.

But the search for smaller moons is not over, according to Sheppard. “We suspect there could be many more small moons” to be discovered, he told The Associated Press.

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