From Sky & Telescope: “Amateur Astronomer Finds “Lost” Moons of Jupiter”

From Sky & Telescope

January 11, 2021
Jeff Hecht

An amateur astronomer has recovered four of five “lost” Jovian moons.

The Minor Planet Center has now published circulars announcing three of the four “lost” moons:
S/2003 J 23
S/2003 J 12
S/2003 J 4

In a first, an amateur astronomer has found four of five “lost” Jovian moons using images from a publicly available archive. The feat allows a recalculation of their orbits, leaving only one of Jupiter’s 79 known satellites still missing.

The formerly missing moons are among a group of 23 small (1 to 4 km) Jovian satellites that Scott Sheppard (Carnegie Institution for Science) and colleagues reported in 2003. Many of these were later lost, though some were later recovered; as of late November, five lost moons remained. They are so faint that large telescopes can see them for only about a month every year, when Jupiter is closest to Earth. Early observations were limited, leaving their initial orbits uncertain, too, all of which made them easy to lose as their predicted positions because ever-more inaccurate.

This diagram shows the initial orbits calculated for Jupiter’s “lost” moons vs. the newly calculated ones based on longer data baselines. While the differences in the calculated orbits appear small, they are significant when it comes to recovering the moons. Credit: Kenneth.

On the Hunt for Lost Moons

The amateur, who gave his name only as Kenneth, found inspiration in two Minor Planet Electronic Circulars from November, which reported recovery of two previously lost Jovian moons (S/2003 J 16 in MPEC 2020 V10 and S/2003 J 9 in MPEC 2020 V19). Those reports were submitted by professional astronomers, who found the moons in images dating from 2010 through 2018.

To begin his quest to find other lost moons, Kenneth turned to the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre’s Solar System Object Image Search (SSOIS), where he found the best images of the small Jovian moons came from the same 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope used to discover them.

CFHT Telescope, Maunakea, Hawaii, USA, at Maunakea, Hawaii, USA,4,207 m (13,802 ft) above sea level.

“I simply search on an object’s name and the page automatically displays a list of all the raw images that are supposed to contain the object,” he said. He started seeking the missing moons in images which covered the area where they should have been (according to their orbits) shortly before the first images used in their discoveries. He used that data to extend the moons’ orbits over longer time periods. With more orbital data, he could then hunt for additional images, and so on.

With each raw image around 300 megabytes, Kenneth says tongue-in-cheek, “most time spent during moon hunting was simply waiting for the files to finish downloading.” But that was only the first step.

Kenneth lined up sequential images using the World Coordinate System to help him match coordinates of reference stars. Then he spent up to several minutes blinking images, seeking objects that were moving from one frame to the next. The Aladin Sky Atlas helped him measure objects’ positions and movement, then he used Find_Orb software to calculate their orbits around Jupiter.

His feat would not have been possible until recent years, says Sam Deen, another amateur astronomer who helped Kenneth and has done recovery work of his own. “The main resource we amateurs have nowadays is the sheer amount of data from the world’s largest telescopes [and] observatories taken every night for us to hunt through,” he adds.

But while the data and analytical software are free and publicly available, that doesn’t mean it’s easy going. “The process is complicated, and the infrastructure isn’t always user-friendly,” Deen notes. Few amateurs use such resources now, but he asserts that anyone who puts in the time can do the same kind of work.

Lost Moons Found

On December 6th, Kenneth started looking for S/2003 J 23 because it had the least orbital uncertainty among the five missing moons. Over three days, he found additional observations between March and December in 2003 and also in February 2017.

This animation blinks two 300-second exposures. The bright streak in the first exposure comes from a bright satellite, but the moon is still clearly visible. Credit: CFHT / OSSOS / B. Gladman.

Then he picked two targets he considered more interesting: Originally, S/2003 J 2 was thought to be the moon farthest from Jupiter and S/2003 J 12 was thought to be the innermost moon in a retrograde orbit. But the images Kenneth found revealed the orbits were more ordinary, putting them both in the Ananke group of retrograde moons. He needed 10 days to recover the fourth moon, S/2003 J 4. He has submitted these results to the Minor Planet Center for publication in their circular.

Images of lost moon S/2003 J 2, which appears at magnitude 24.5. Several background galaxies are also pictured.
Credit: CFHT / OSSOS / B. Gladman.

The fifth lost moon proved more difficult: Kenneth gave up seeking S/2003 J 10 after searching for more than a dozen days. The images he did find enabled him to plot its path over two months. That data suggests the little moon is part of the compact Carme group of irregular moons. But the uncertainty in the moon’s orbit is too large to predict where the moon is now.

Meanwhile, unknown to Kenneth and most of the astronomical community, Sheppard had already recovered S/2003 J 2 and S/2003 J 23. But his submissions to the Minor Planet Center, along with Kenneth’s, are stuck in a processing backlog.

Faint Needles in a Giant Haystack

A diagram of Jupiter’s 79 known satellites. The planet’s prograde moons (purple, blue) orbit relatively close to Jupiter while its retrograde moons (red) are farther out. (One exceptions is Valetudo, in green, a prograde-moving body that’s far out.)
Credit: Carnegie Inst. for Science / Roberto Molar Candanosa.

“It was impressive that Kenneth was able to use the older observations,” says Sheppard. Besides the moons being extremely faint, he notes that the 2001 data were not as good as the 2003 images used in the moons’ discovery.

Faintness is not the only problem in tracking Jupiter’s small moons. Their orbits can extend up to 0.35 astronomical unit away from Jupiter (50 million kilometers, or about 5° in the sky), which means moons can be found across an area of about 80 square degrees. That’s a giant haystack to search for faint needles, especially when the required powerful telescopes have small fields of view.

What makes the discoveries — and recoveries — worthwhile for Sheppard is not bragging rights, but what they teach us about planetary satellite systems and the history of the solar system.

Most of Jupiter’s outer moons are small, with orbits that are retrograde (meaning they move around the planet in the opposite direction of its rotation), highly eccentric (long oval-shaped), and inclined to the plane of the solar system. The planet likely captured these moons long ago.

Most of these moons belong to one of four distinct families, each of which contains one big object and many smaller ones. The smaller objects appear to be fragments, broken off during collisions with passing objects. While collisions are rare now, the number of small objects suggest there used to be many more. Finding and tracking new moons thus helps answer questions about the history of the solar system.

See the full article here .


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Sky & Telescope, founded in 1941 by Charles A. Federer Jr. and Helen Spence Federer, has the largest, most experienced staff of any astronomy magazine in the world. Its editors are virtually all amateur or professional astronomers, and every one has built a telescope, written a book, done original research, developed a new product, or otherwise distinguished him or herself.

Sky & Telescope magazine, now in its eighth decade, came about because of some happy accidents. Its earliest known ancestor was a four-page bulletin called The Amateur Astronomer, which was begun in 1929 by the Amateur Astronomers Association in New York City. Then, in 1935, the American Museum of Natural History opened its Hayden Planetarium and began to issue a monthly bulletin that became a full-size magazine called The Sky within a year. Under the editorship of Hans Christian Adamson, The Sky featured large illustrations and articles from astronomers all over the globe. It immediately absorbed The Amateur Astronomer.

Despite initial success, by 1939 the planetarium found itself unable to continue financial support of The Sky. Charles A. Federer, who would become the dominant force behind Sky & Telescope, was then working as a lecturer at the planetarium. He was asked to take over publishing The Sky. Federer agreed and started an independent publishing corporation in New York.

“Our first issue came out in January 1940,” he noted. “We dropped from 32 to 24 pages, used cheaper quality paper…but editorially we further defined the departments and tried to squeeze as much information as possible between the covers.” Federer was The Sky’s editor, and his wife, Helen, served as managing editor. In that January 1940 issue, they stated their goal: “We shall try to make the magazine meet the needs of amateur astronomy, so that amateur astronomers will come to regard it as essential to their pursuit, and professionals to consider it a worthwhile medium in which to bring their work before the public.”