Hubble finds a tiny fourth moon around Pluto

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 20, 2011 11:49 AM
Hubble finds a tiny fourth moon around Pluto

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a tiny fourth moon orbiting the distant icy dwarf planet Pluto, NASA said on Wednesday.

The space telescope was searching for rings around the planetary oddball at the edge of our solar system when it came across P4, the temporary name for the newly discovered moon.

With an estimated diameter of 8 to 21 miles, P4 is the smallest of Pluto's four moons, the U.S. space agency said in a statement.

Pluto's largest moon, Charon, is 648 miles across, and its other moons, Nix and Hydra, are in the range of 20 to 70 miles in diameter.

"I find it remarkable that Hubble's cameras enabled us to see such a tiny object so clearly from a distance of more than 3 billion miles (5 billion km)," said Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who led this observing program with Hubble.

The observation by Hubble is part of ongoing work to support NASA's New Horizons mission, scheduled to have a close encounter with Pluto and its moons in 2015.

P4 is located between the orbits of Nix and Hydra, both of which were discovered by Hubble in 2005. Charon was discovered in 1978 at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

All four of Pluto's moons are believed to have formed when Pluto and another planet-sized body collided in the early history of our solar system. Earth's Moon may have formed the same way.

P4 was first seen in a photo taken by Hubble on June 28 and was confirmed in subsequent Hubble pictures taken July 3 and July 18, NASA said.

(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Will Dunham)