NASA's Hubble telescope spots 14th moon of Neptune

Once again, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a new moon in the deep reaches of the solar system – this time in orbit around the gas giant Neptune. And once again, the moon was identified by Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer with the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

But no, “Star Trek” star William Shatner will not renew his campaign to have a moon in the solar system named Vulcan, in honor Mr. Spock’s home planet.

“Yes, I have heard about the new Neptune moon, but the naming conventions are that they are named after water deities from Greek Mythology,” Shatner tweeted Monday after NASA announced the discovery.

Amazing pictures from space

Just two weeks ago, Shatner was getting over a snub from the International Astronomical Union, which opted not to name either of Pluto’s two newest moons Vulcan despite an online campaign that yielded 174,062 votes in favor of his idea. The union passed on the name because Pluto and its moons all have names related to the underworld of Greek mythology, and “Vulcan does not fit into the underworld mythological scheme,” the organization said.

As the Roman god of fire, Vulcan would hardly be a better fit for a moon of Neptune, a planet named for the Roman god of the sea. As Shatner noted, Neptune’s 13 other moons have names related to water. The biggest moon, Triton, is named for one of the children of Poseiden, the Greek version of Neptune. Several – including Halimede, Galatea, Psamathe, Laomedeia, Sao and Neso – are named after sea nymphs. Neptune’s other moons include Proteus, the shape-shifting old man of the sea; Thalassa, a sea goddess; Despina, a daughter of Poseidon; Larissa, who had children with Poseidon; and Nereid and Naiad, two classes of water-related nymphs.

For the time being, Neptune’s 14th moon will be known as S/2004 N 1. A mere 12 miles across, it is the smallest satellite circling Neptune and completes an orbit in just 23 hours. NASA estimates the moon is “roughly 100 million times fainter than the faintest star that can be seen with the naked eye.”

Moons of the solar system

Showalter caught a hint of it on July 1 while studying Neptune’s faint rings. It appeared as a white dot about 65,400 miles from the planet. He looked at 150 pictures Hubble had taken of Neptune between 2004 and 2009 and found the dot on many of those photos too, tracing a circular path around the planet.

“The moons and arcs orbit very quickly, so we had to devise a way to follow their motion in order to bring out the details of the system,” Showalter told NASA. “It’s the same reason a sports photographer tracks a running athlete – the athlete stays in focus, but the background blurs.”

You can see pictures of the faint moon in the photo gallery above and read more about it on NASA’s Hubblesite.

Return to Science Now.