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Hubble Finds Two Chaotically Tumbling Pluto Moons

This computer animation illustrates how Pluto's moon Nix changes its spin unpredictably as it orbits the "double planet" Pluto-Charon. The view is from the surface of Pluto as the moon circles the Pluto-Charon system. This is a time-lapse view of the moon, compressing four years of motion into two minutes, with one complete orbit of Pluto-Charon every two seconds. (The apparent star movement rate is greatly slowed down for illustration purposes.) The animation is based on dynamical models of spinning bodies in complex gravitational fields — like the field produced by Pluto and Charon's motion about each other. Astronomers used this simulation to try to understand the unpredictable changes in reflected light from Nix as it orbits Pluto-Charon. They also found that Pluto's moon Hydra also undergoes chaotic spin. The football shape of both moons contributes to their wild motion. The consequences are that if you lived on either moon, you could not predict the time or direction the sun would rise the next morning.


(The moon is too small for Hubble to resolve surface features, and so the surface textures used here are purely for illustration purposes.)


Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Showalter (SETI Institute), and G. Bacon (STScI)


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NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission.


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Uploaded on June 3, 2015