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Pluto's fifth moon: five fascinating facts (+video)

Using data from the Hubble telescope, SETI scientists spotted a fifth moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto.

By Mike / July 13, 2012

This image, taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, shows five moons orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet Pluto. The green circle marks the newly discovered moon, designated P5, as photographed by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 on Saturday.

NASA/ESA/M. Showalter (SETI Institute)


Scientists announced the discovery of a new moon around Pluto today (July 11), bringing the dwarf planet's number of known satellites to five.

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Scientists in the US have announced on Wednesday the discovery of the smallest moon yet around the icy orb if Pluto, bringing the count of its known moons to five.

The newfound Pluto moon was spotted by researchers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The instrument has also found three other Pluto satellites — P4 last year, and Nix and Hydra in 2005. (The dwarf planet's other known moon, Charon, was discovered in 1978 at the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station in Arizona.)

Here are a few fun facts about the new moon:

Its name is a mouthful

The fifth Pluto moon has been provisionally named S/2012 (134340) 1, but it's unlikely anyone other than astronomers will ever call it that. The satellite also currently goes by the less clunky moniker P5, though that won't last forever.

The International Astronomical Union oversees the naming of celestial bodies, and its guidelines stipulate that objects in Pluto's neighborhood receive mythological names associated with the underworld. Pluto, Charon, Nix and Hydra already meet this requirement; P4 and P5 will someday, too. 

It's a tiny satellite

P5 is nothing like our own moon, a giant orb massive enough to be rounded into a sphere by its own gravity. Rather, researchers think P5 is irregularly shaped, with a diameter between 6 and 15 miles (10 to 24 kilometers).

P5 is thus likely the smallest of Pluto's known satellites. Charon measures 648 miles (1,043 km) across, Nix and Hydra range between 20 and 70 miles (32 to 113 km) wide, and P4 is thought to be 8 to 21 miles (13 to 34 km) across. [The Moons of Pluto Revealed (Photos)]

For comparison, Earth's moon is roughly 2,150 miles (3,460 km) wide.

It's not too far from Pluto

P5 zips around Pluto at an average distance of 29,000 miles (47,000 km), placing it outside the orbit of Charon but inside the orbits of Nix, Hydra and P4. The orbits of all five known Pluto moons are roughly coplanar, researchers said.

Earth's moon, on the other hand, circles our planet from about 239,000 miles (385,000 km) away.

P5 makes spacecraft operators nervous

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