Today’s post is written by Simon Porter, a New Horizons postdoctoral researcher at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Simon’s work focuses on the small satellites of Pluto.
This week’s beautiful Charon images remind us that Pluto is not just one body; it’s a whole system of worlds.
Pluto and its largest moon Charon dance around each other, making circles around their common center of mass, which lies in an empty space between them. Around the dancing couple are four small moons. In order of increasing distance, their names are Styx (just beyond Charon), then Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. These tiny moons also orbit around the system’s center of mass. The orbits line up like a miniature solar system, except with a binary system at the center, similar to the planetary system around the star Kepler 47. All four of the small moons are less than about 30 miles (50 kilometers) in their longest dimension. Each has a lumpy shape because, unlike Pluto and Charon, they aren’t big enough for gravity to squish them into a ball.
Nix and Hydra were discovered in 2005, shortly before New Horizons launched in 2006, and their initials were a subtle nod to ...