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We Still Have a Lot to Learn About Our Own Solar System

One of my favorite posters hanging on my bedroom wall as a child was my map of the solar system. I got it A-Christmas-Story style, by drinking enough Tang to turn my cuticles orange, and then shipping the UPC codes off in the mail to get the prize for being loyal to a fake orange drink. Like the decoder ring from the Little Orphan Annie radio show Ralphie sent away for in the Christmas classic, my Tang solar system map was my key to a special universe. I studied every detail of that map and learned it. That’s probably why I’m lost when I inspect a modern map of the solar system. It seems like a brand new world out there.

decoder-ring

There are more than twice as many moons now as there was when my prized childhood poster was printed, thanks to technology that allows astronomers to see our neighbors more clearly than ever. This is what happened in the early 2000s, when a research team at the University of Hawaii used digital camera technology and massive telescopes to find at least 62 moons circling the giant planets, like Jupiter and Saturn. Some of these new “moons” are less than a mile wide and swing wildly about the planet in retrograde orbit.

The discovery team was led by Dr. David Jewitt at Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii, when he was a faculty member of the University of Hawaii. Jewitt currently works in UCLA’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences.

In some ways, the project at Mauna Kea was fueled by a friendly wager between Jewitt and graduate student Scott S. Sheppard. Jewitt bet Sheppard they would find fewer than 10 new moons with their observations. It seemed like a safe bet. Before Team Jewitt’s efforts, there had been only a handful of new moons discovered in our solar system for the previous century.

Most sports gamblers know not to put too much faith in the statistics of the past, and if Jewitt hadn’t placed his bet based on historical perspective, he’d be $100 richer today.

The group’s efforts resulted in an explosion of new moons being added to the map of our solar system.

Using cameras and computers the team could track small, dim objects for greater distances than was possible before the improved technology. The resulting list of new moons published in 2003 mostly featured moons smaller than 5 km in diameter, and some were even smaller than 1 km in diameter.

Hermippe is one of the tiny moons of Jupiter discovered by Dr. Jewitt's research team in Hawaii. Hermippe is just 4 km in diameter.

Hermippe is one of the tiny moons of Jupiter discovered by Dr. Jewitt’s research team in Hawaii. Hermippe is just 4 km in diameter.

Earlier this month, news was released about a new, 19 km moon orbiting Neptune. Currently known only as S/2004 N 1, it is the 14th, and smallest, satellite of Neptune.
Neptune had only two moons on my old Tang solar system map, Triton and Nereid. Six more moons were discovered orbiting Neptune by Voyager II in 1989 and researchers found another five by the end of 2003. Voyager II would find another 10 moons around Uranus during its journey through the solar system. Presuming my Tang map was made circa 1980, I’m guessing it also reported Jupiter as having only 17 moons. Today, my old Tang map is about as accurate as a map of Europe published in the same era.

In 2003 alone, Jewitt’s team discovered 23 moons in Jupiter’s orbit. Since 2004, there have been another 30 moons added to the solar system map.
The discovery of S/2004 N 1 resulted from images from the Hubble Telescope, which took brilliant imagery of Neptune between 2004-2009. Mark Showalter, of SETI Institute, Mountain View, Ca., took the time to study the images and discovered the new satellite.

Images from the Hubble Telescope led to the discover of S/2004 N 1, a new moon orbiting Neptune.

Images from the Hubble Telescope led to the discover of S/2004 N 1, a new moon orbiting Neptune.

Discovery News reported, “He was analyzing about 150 images to learn more about faint ring segments circling Neptune, when, on a whim, he looked beyond the rings and noticed a white dot. That turned out to be the new moon.”

Today, our solar system has one fewer planet than it did on my childhood map, and it has also picked up five new dwarf planets, Eris, Makemake, Haumea, Ceres, and Pluto. Three of these dwarf planets also have their own small collection of moons. Knowing this warms my heart.

It tells me progress is still being made in our quest to understand the universe, even though  the science of politics has tried to suck the life out of federally funded research and space exploration projects in the US. NASA, who has already taken a few budget cuts in recent years, lost an additional $200 million for its 2014 planetary science budget.

Despite the dwindling financial support for research of the mysteries of space, there are still people dedicating their lives to solving the riddles of the universe to unlock its secrets.

The occasional news of new discoveries like the new moon on Neptune, and the new moon explosion of the early-to-mid 2000s provides a small glimmer of hope for the future of space exploration and research, because it is verification that someone out there is still looking up and trying to figure things out. It makes me believe the passion to discover new information about the universe around us, still burns hot in the human psyche.
The Truth is Out There. We’ve just got to find it.