The latest photos from NASA’s New Horizons’ probe shows quite the crowd around Pluto. We’ve seen three of Pluto’s moons. New Horizons first detected Charon in 2013. Hydra and Nix followed in July 2014 and January 2015. Two weeks ago, it spotted Kerberos and Styx.
“New Horizons is now on the threshold of discovery,” said mission science team member John Spencer. “If the spacecraft observes any additional moons as we get closer to Pluto, they will be worlds that no one has seen before.”
New Horizons is about to begin its first search for new moons or rings in the Pluto system. Any discovery would be awesome, but New Horizons also needs to know if it has a clear path.
Scientists are using the faint images above to help them fine-tune their search skills for other objects.
Kerberos and Styx are new discoveries
Pluto’s fourth and fifth moon were discovered in 2011 and 2012. The New Horizons team used the Hubble Space Telescope to spot the two new moons.
Styx orbits Pluto every 20 days and is believed to be 4 to 13 miles in diameter.
Kerberos has a further orbit at 32 days and is a bit bigger – somewhere between 6 to 20 miles in diameter.
Both moons are 20-30 times fainter than Nix and Hydra, Pluto’s second and third largest moons.
The New Horizons team used the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager to capture the images.
“Detecting these tiny moons from a distance of more than 55 million miles is amazing, and a credit to the team that built our LORRI long-range camera and John Spencer’s team of moon and ring hunters,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
What’s next for New Horizons?
As New Horizons continues towards Pluto, one its primary goals will be mapping the surfaces of Pluto and Charon. New Horizons will capture images with an average resolution of one kilometer. The Hubble Space Telescope can only manage about 500-kilometer resolution when viewing Pluto and Charon. The New Horizons team also hopes to study Pluto’s atmosphere.
At its closest approach, New Horizons is expected to be about 6,200 miles away from Pluto. This figure is from pre-launch planning so that could change. One thing is for sure – we are going to get some incredible images of Pluto and Charon in the coming months.