Hippocamp may have Broken from a Larger Moon

Hippocamp may have Broken from a Larger Moon

Tiny Neptune Moon, called Hippocamp, may have Broken from a Larger Moon

A team of planetary scientists finally discovered an explanation for Hippocamp (a mysterious Neptune moon), which was originally located in 2013.

Commonly known as “the moon that shouldn’t be there”, Hippocamp is extraordinarily close to Proteus, a much larger Neptunian moon. Generally, the gravitational pull of a moon as big as Proteus is strong enough to swallow the smaller moon while clearing out its orbital path. In these circumstances, the existence of this tiny moon raised quite a lot of questions for astronomers. Recent reports suggest that they may have found an answer for these queries by making use of the Hubble Space Telescope of NASA.

Astronomers claim that Hippocamp is most likely a chipped-off piece of the larger moon that started orbiting after a collision with a comet, billions of years ago. Just to get an idea about the sizes of these Neptunian moons, Proteus is 418 kilometers across while Hippocamp has a diameter of only 20 miles. Mark Showalter, an Astronomer at the SETI Institute in California, described his experience of observing this strange moon by saying,

“The first thing we realized was that you wouldn’t expect to find such a tiny moon right next to Neptune’s biggest inner moon. In the distant past, given the slow migration outward of the larger moon, Proteus was once where Hippocamp is now.”

The images captured by Voyager 2 in 1989 provide the supporting evidence for these claims. They show a large impact crater on Proteus which is big enough to shatter the moon. Showalter acknowledged that it is only possible due to the powerful Hubble Space Telescope that they found a little piece of Proteus in the form of Hippocamp.

Birth of Hippocamp in the Satellite System of Neptune

The history of Neptune’s satellite system is extremely torturing and violent. According to a theory, Neptune captured a massive moon (Triton) from the Kuiper Belt, several billions of years ago. Kuiper Belt is a huge region of rocky and icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Given its humungous size, the gravitational strength of Triton tore apart the original satellite system. This gave way to the 2nd generation of natural satellites as debris from the shattered Neptunian moons merged together. The bombardment of massive comets continued to take place in this system which ultimately gave birth to a 3rd generation satellite, which was named as Hippocamp. Jack Lissauer, a Co-author of the research who works at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley of California, referred to comet impacts in the outer solar system and said,

“Based on estimates of comet populations, we know that other moons in the outer solar system have been hit by comets, smashed apart, and re-accreted multiple times. This pair of satellites provides a dramatic illustration that moons are sometimes broken apart by comets.”

Name of Hippocamp

According to Greek mythology, Hippocamp is half-horse half-fish and the rules of the International Astronomical Union require that the name of all the Neptunian moons must come from Roman and Greek mythology of the ancient world. The scientific name of the seahorse is Hippocampus, which is also a vital part of the human brain.

This is an important development, which will help researchers to improve their understanding of the impact of comet strikes in the outer parts of our solar system. Similarly, it provides evidence for the fact that comets do break natural satellites, sometimes.  

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