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October 31, 2005

APL Scientist, Team Spot New Moons Around Pluto

Hal Weaver, a planetary scientist in APL's Space Department, is co-leader of a team that used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to view the ninth planet in our solar system—and discover that Pluto may have not one, but three moons.

If confirmed, the discovery of the two new moons could offer insights into the nature and evolution of the Pluto system, Kuiper Belt Objects with satellite systems, and the early Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt is a vast region of icy, rocky bodies beyond Neptune's orbit. "If, as our new Hubble images indicate, Pluto has not one, but two or three moons, it will become the first body in the Kuiper Belt known to have more than one satellite," says Weaver, who is also the project scientist on NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, set to launch in January 2006.

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Pluto Companion Search Team Co-leader Hal Weaver discusses the discovery

Two new candidate satellites of Pluto. The images of Pluto (brightest object) and Charon (to the right of Pluto) were made from short exposure images by the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys/High-Resolution Camera (ACS/HRC) in two filters and combined to produce a color image. The images of the two new satellites were made from longer images by the ACS/Wide Field Camera taken 3 days apart and showing the motion in their orbit in the Pluto system. The left image shows the Pluto system on May 15, 2005; on the right is the Pluto system on May 18, 2005.

Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI) and the HST Pluto Companion Search Team