Pluto’s family of moons is an odd bunch, none more so than the baby Kerberos.
On Friday, NASA released a so-called family portrait of Pluto and her moons. Snapped by the New Horizons probe, the last of the planet’s moons was revealed to the public in all her celestial glory.
Before the probe headed to Pluto, scientists’ beliefs about the dwarf planet’s other small moons — Nix, Styx and Hydra — turned out to be correct. And before they took a closer look at Kerberos, they had certain expectations about this moon.
But now, all of them have been shattered, with Kerberos proving herself to be the weirdest member of the Pluto family.
Here’s what they assumed about the moon. Based on the data NASA had received from the Hubble Space Telescope, they discovered that Kerberos had a very strong gravitational influence on Pluto’s other moons, The Washington Post reported. The natural explanation was that Kerberos was large.
According to NASA, scientists were still puzzled with this data because the moon was very faint. But they came up with an explanation — the surface of Kerberos was covered in a dark material of some sort. Planetary bodies are usually darkened by chemical changes brought on by sunlight and cosmic rays, BBC added.
The reality about Pluto’s moon was much different than what they imagined. The moon and its surface aren’t dark at all, but very reflective and likely coated in very clean ice. In fact, all of Pluto’s moons are very reflective. And the big shocker is that Kerberos is teeny-tiny.
“Once again, the Pluto system has surprised us,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver.
These details only deepen the mystery because it means a very small moon is exerting a strong gravitational force previously attributed only to larger bodies. And scientists are scratching their heads as to why.
Kerberos orbits about 37,000 miles from Pluto, and it is the planet’s second-outermost moon, located between Nix and Hydra. It lies beyond the orbits of Styx and Charon, which is the largest in the family and the planet’s dominant moon.
Pictures of Kerberos were snapped by New Horizon’s Lorri camera at a distance of just under 250,000 miles. All of the pictures taken have been combined into one so Earthlings can get a clear, very detailed picture of the distant moon.
Not only has the data revealed that Kerberos is very bright and very little, but it’s also oddly-shaped. The moon has two lobes, which hints that it could’ve been formed when two other, smaller icy bodies crashed and stuck together.
The larger lobe is five miles across, and the smaller one is three miles across.
NASA had hoped that Pluto was surrounded by many moons, but they ended up finding only Kerberos and the rest of the moon family. So they were a bit disappointed in that regard. Hopefully, Kerberos and the others make up for the disappointment with their quirkiness.
Meanwhile, the New Horizons has much more exploring to do. The probe is continuing to download the data that it gathered during a flyby in July. Now, it’s exploring even deeper into space, and New Horizons is 3 billion miles from Earth.
It’s next stop is, hopefully, a distant object in the Kuiper Belt called 2014 MU69, which is smaller and very different from Pluto. As The Inquisitr previously reported, studying the belt could unlock some mysteries about our solar system. Since this system was formed, its worlds have been untouched and unchanged — unlike Earth — and they are considered “primordial relic(s)” from the same collapsing cloud that gave birth to our home.
In order to follow up the exploration of Pluto with even more fascinating discoveries, NASA needs approval for a mission extension, which they’ll submit next year. The encounter would occur in 2019, and NASA hasn’t yet decided to fund it. Nonetheless, as the world stares in wonder at Pluto’s littlest moon Kerberos, New Horizons is changing course for the Kuiper Belt, just in case.
[Photo via NASA / Getty Images]