If one of Pluto’s moons spins any faster its surface might fly off


This composite image shows a sliver of Pluto’s large moon, Charon, and all four of Pluto’s small moons

Credit: NASA

Pluto’s moons are some of the wackiest in known space world

As if Pluto and its moons weren’t unique enough – scientists at the SETI Institute say if tiny Hydra were spinning much faster its surface would fly off.

The fact that most of Plutos moons -- Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra – are spinning wildly anyway is an anomaly, so when NASA’s New Horizon’s space probe got close enough to make some observations about the spin rates of Pluto’s known satellites what was found surprised a few folks. Typically most inner moons in the solar system keep one face pointed toward their central planet, NASA stated.

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“These are four of the strangest moons in the solar system,” said Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist at the SETI Institute and a co-investigator on the New Horizons mission in a statement.

One moon, Nix, is tilted on its axis and spinning backwards. The outermost moon, Hydra, is spinning like a top, rotating 89 times every time it circles the dwarf planet. “If Hydra were spinning much faster, material would fly off its surface due to the centrifugal force,” he said.

Showalter said he suspects that Charon, Pluto’s large inner moon, is responsible for this odd behavior because of Charon’s strong gravitational force which would disrupt synchronous rotation, causing the small moons to tumble chaotically.

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“In the fields of physics and mathematics, ‘chaos’ is a technical term indicating unpredictable behavior. However, chaos alone -- while describing the motion of these moons -- is not an explanation. There’s clearly something fundamental about the dynamics of the system that we do not understand. We expected chaos, but this is pandemonium,” Showalter stated.

According to NASA: Charon is by far the largest of Pluto’s moons, with a diameter of 751 miles (1,212 kilometers). Nix and Hydra have comparable sizes, approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers) across in their longest dimension above. Kerberos and Styx are much smaller and have comparable sizes, roughly 6-7 miles (10-12 kilometers) across in their longest dimension.

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