Hippocamp discovered using Hubble Space Telescope

Hippocamp discovered using Hubble Space Telescope

A new moon has been discovered orbiting Neptune, scientists announced in a new study Wednesday, joining the other 13 we’d already known about.

The moon, named Hippocamp after the sea creature of Greek mythology, is Neptune’s smallest moon, with a diameter of only 21 miles. 

Hippocamp orbits close to Proteus, the largest and outermost of the planets’ inner moons. The largest moon of Neptune is Triton, located in an orbit farther out. 

When compared to the planet’s other inner moons, Hippocamp is tiny, “which suggests a violent history for the region,” said Anne Verbiscer, a University of Virginia astronomer, in a companion article in Nature.

 The new moon may have formed from ejected fragments of the larger moon after it was hit by a comet, according to the study. This supports the idea that all of Neptune’s  seven inner moons were formed and shaped by powerful collisions with comets.

All of the inner moons are all thought to be younger than Neptune, having formed relatively soon after the capture of Triton. 

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It’s so small that it wasn’t detected in 1989 during the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune. Hippocamp instead was spotted by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope. It was discovered by SETI Institute astronomer Mark Showalter and his colleagues using a special image-processing technique that made Hubble’s cameras extra-sensitive.

More: Astronomers discover 12 more moons orbiting Jupiter, including an ‘oddball’

“The authors were actively hunting for moons to add to Neptune’s retinue,” Verbiscer said. She added that unlike Hippocamp, other recent discoveries in our solar system have been serendipitous: Just last year, planetary scientists reported the discovery of 12 moons of Jupiter, which were identified during a search for the elusive Planet X that is proposed to lurk in the outermost region of the solar system.

The new technique bodes well for future discoveries: “Applying the techniques that were used to find (Hippocamp) might result in the detection of other small moons around giant planets, or even planets that orbit distant stars,” Verbiscer said.

In Greek mythology, the sea monster Hippocamp (aka HIppocampus) often is depicted as having a horse’s upper body along with the lower body of a fish.

The study was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature.

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