Volume 96, Issue 64
Thursday, January 23, 2003

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"Not everyone gets to say they found moons": moon-finder

By Anthony Lafratta
Gazette Staff

Astronomers' recent discovery of three new moons orbiting Neptune has been partially credited to two students at McMaster University.

They are the first moons to be discovered orbiting Neptune since the Voyager II mission in 1989, but went undetected at the time because they are faint and at a great distance from the planet.

The newfound moons – which now brings Neptune's known total to 11 – were discovered as part of a project initiated and led by J.J. Kavelaars, a former research associate at McMaster, and Matthew Holman, a researcher at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysics Centre.

Two years ago, Kavelaars said he found new moons around Saturn, which suggested that similar ones could be found around Uranus and possibly Neptune.

In 2001, Kavelaars gathered data on Neptune and then hired McMaster students – fourth-year arts and science student Dan Milisavljevic and Wesley Fraser, a third-year astrophysics student – to help with the analysis, he explained.

"After looking half the summer for Kuiper belt objects, I found two," Milisavljevic said. "Dr. Kavelaars sent me a batch of data to analyze, focused around Neptune and Uranus and specifically looking for satellites of those planets. We hit the jackpot."

According to Milisavljevic, much of the data has yet to be published and the precise magnitude of the discoveries remains unknown.

"These new moons strongly suggest that new ones may be found. The strange orbits of the [lunar] satellites help to revamp and improve upon our understanding of both a planet's formation, and the formation of the solar system," Milisavljevic said.

Kavelaars, now a research officer for the National Research Council of Canada, said the new research could help uncover answers as to how gaseous planets, including Neptune, are formed. "Discoveries are waiting to be made," Kavelaars said.

"New moons are discovered all of the time," explained David Gray, professor of physics and astronomy at Western.

"The discovery of new moons is no tremendous discovery, although I don't know of anything special that [this discovery] could represent at this point," Gray said.

"What I did was nothing outstanding," Milisavljevic said. "This discovery has ballooned into something I'll hold with me for the rest of my life. Hey, not everyone gets to say they found moons."

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