Moons dance around Pluto This illustration depicts Pluto and its five moons from a perspective looking away from the sun (AP photos)
Moons dance around Pluto
Lexile

There's a chaotic dance going on at the far end of our solar system. It involves Pluto and five of its closest friends, a study finds.

Hubble Space Telescope images of Pluto, its largest moon Charon and tinier moons Styx, Nix, Hydra and Kerberos show the odd rhythmic gyrations of the six distant objects. It's like a dance. But it is unlike anything in our solar system.

What makes it so odd is that there's a double set of dances going on. First, Pluto and Charon are locked together in their own waltz. It is "as if they are a dumbbell" with a rod connecting them, said study author Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in California. It's the solar system's only binary planet system, even though Charon isn't technically a planet, he said. Pluto, too, is no longer considered a full planet.

"It's pretty darn weird," Showalter said.

But Pluto and Charon aren't alone. And that's where it gets more complicated.

The four little moons circle the Pluto-Charon combo. They wobble a bit when they go closer to either Pluto or Charon, being pushed and pulled by the two bigger objects.

Those four moons orbit Pluto-Charon in a precise rhythmic way, but with a twist. They also interact when they near each other. So it seems like they all dance to one overarching beat but not quite in the same way. They are just doing their own thing, said planetary scientist Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

"It's kind of like you'd see at a Grateful Dead concert," Hammel said. She wasn't part of the study, but praised it as giving a glimpse of what might be happening in other distant star systems where there are two stars and planets that revolve around them. It is like the mythical Star Wars world of Tatooine.

With the tiny moons wobbling and flipping over in an unpredictable and chaotic way, if you lived on Nix or Hydra, the sun would come up in different parts of the sky, if at all on some days, Showalter said.

"It's a very strange world," he said. "You would literally not know if the sun is coming up tomorrow."

NASA's $700 million New Horizons spacecraft will arrive in the Pluto system in mid-July. It has been on a nine-year 3 billion mile flight that started before Pluto was demoted to dwarf-planet status.

Critical thinking challenge: Why are the moons movements referred to as a dance?

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COMMENTS (2)
  • Eric0221-YYCA
    4/07/2016 - 10:40 p.m.

    The scientists might have been able to see that four of its moons or planets that orbit around the Pluto-Charon orbit, the planets are going around very oddly that the scientists had been able to find out. The scientists might have been able to find out about the four other planet in the Pluto-Charon orbit which Pluto and Charon are like a dumbbell with a rod stuck on them while the four other planets are very loose. The people might have been able to see that the four other planets orbiting in the Pluto-Charon orbit which they are so loose that they are doing an odd dance. People might have been able to see about the four planets on the orbit between Pluto and Charon which people had been able to find out about the four planets going up and down oddly.
    Critical Thinking Question: Why are the moons' movements referred to as a dance?
    Answer: I know that the moons' movements are referred to as a dance because the moons are moving up and down in the orbit of the Pluto-Charon orbit which would be referred as a dance in the orbit.

  • Steve0620-yyca
    6/22/2016 - 02:50 p.m.

    Pluto has five moons that are close to it. They are called Charon Styx, Nix, Hydra and Kerberos. Charon is the largest out of those five. It startled the scientists to fine Pluto "dancing" with its other moons. NASA has seven hundred million dollar spaceship that will go to Pluto. It is amazing because the spaceship has been flying for nine years. That shows how far away Pluto is and how much work has been put to this. I have not heard of this type of thing much so it was great to know about it.
    The moon movements are referred to as a dance because because they are moving in a strange way. It is unique because this doesn't happen much. Pluto and Charon are doing their own thing and the other moons are going around them.

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