The Pluto System
Date: 15 Feb 2006
Pluto's moons Hydra and Nix were first spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. This follow-up image helped confirm the discovery.
The confirmation reinforces the emerging view that the Kuiper Belt, a swarm of icy bodies encircling the solar system beyond Neptune, may be more complex and dynamic than astronomers once thought. Pluto resides inside the Kuiper Belt and is about 3 billion miles from the sun. Pluto was discovered in 1930.
The moons' orbits are in the same plane as the orbit of the much larger satellite Charon (discovered in 1978). This likely means the moons were not captured, but instead were born, along with Charon, in what is commonly theorized to have been a titanic collision between two Pluto-sized objects over 4 billion years ago.
Astronomers believe that the formation of the Pluto system is similar to that of our Earth and Moon. In both cases a comparable-sized body slammed into the parent planet. Simulations show that debris from the collision would go into an orbit around the planet and coalesce to form one or more satellites. Investigating how Pluto ended up with three moons while the Earth has only one should yield valuable insights into the processes by which satellite systems form around planets.
Last Update: 11 Apr 2011 (AMB)