How Pluto's Tiniest Moon Kerberos Fooled Scientists

Appearances can be deceiving.

ByABC News
October 23, 2015, 1:08 PM

— -- Pluto's moon Kerberos played quite a trick on scientists.

Scientists thought Kerberos was large and dark, but photos taken during the New Horizons flyby over the summer that were just released have revealed the moon is actually tiny and reflective.

Prior to the New Horizons flyby, scientists tried to weigh the faint moon by measuring its gravitational influence on neighboring moons and found it was strong. The findings led scientists to suspect Kerberos could potentially be massive and theorized its faint appearance was because the moon was covered in dark material.

That wasn't the case. A blurry photo of Kerberos that was downlinked from New Horizons earlier this week shows a double-lobed moon with one lobe stretching five miles and the other three miles. NASA scientists said its likely Kerberos' unique shape is the result of the merger of two smaller objects.

The moon's surface is also highly reflective, just like Pluto's other small moons, indicating it is likely covered by a sheet of clean water ice, NASA said.

"Our predictions were nearly spot-on for the other small moons, but not for Kerberos," New Horizons co-investigator Mark Showalter said in a statement. Scientists will now use the results to gain a better understanding of the satellite system around Pluto.