Astronomers Find 20 New Moons Orbiting Saturn

Saturn is not only the Lord of the Rings of our solar system, but also the Lord of the "Moons."

Astronomers have discovered 20 new satellites orbiting Saturn, taking the Satellite record from Jupiter. According to recent reports, the ringed planet now has 82 satellites in total orbiting it.

Until not long ago, it was Jupiter the planet with the most number of moons orbiting it; the Gas Giant had 79 known moons circling it. Now, astronomers have made a sensational set of discoveries, revealing that they have successfully identified as many as 20 previously unknown satellites orbiting Saturn, meaning that the planet often dubbed as “Lord of the Rings” has as many as 82 moons revolving around it.

Although not as massive as Earth’s moon, astronomers have explained that some of the new moons discovered around Saturn have a diameter of approximately 5 kilometers.  As revealed by the Minor Planet Center, 17 of the newly found moon’s orbit Saturn opposite to the rotation of the planet around its axis, while the other three rotate in the same direction as Saturn.

As revealed by Space.com, 17 of the newly found satellites take more than three Earth years to complete a successful orbit around their host planet. Furthermore, the astronomers have revealed that the farthest moon they’ve found is also the most distant Saturn satellite known to date.

The discovery images for the newly found very distant prograde moon of Saturn. Image Credit: Scott Sheppard.
The discovery images for the newly found very distant prograde moon of Saturn. Image Credit: Scott Sheppard.

The outer moons of Saturn seem to be arranged into three different clusters in terms of the inclinations of the angles at which they are circling the planet.  Two of the newly found prograde moons belong into a group of outer moons with inclinations of approximately 46 degrees named the Inuit group, as they are named after Inuit mythology. These moons may have once comprised a larger moon that was torn apart in the distant past.

Likewise, the newly found retrograde moons have comparable inclinations to other previously known retrograde Saturnian moons, meaning that they are also likely remnants from a once-larger parent moon that was broken apart in the distant past.  These retrograde moons are classified into the Norse group, with names coming from Norse mythology.

Of the twenty newly-found moons, the two satellites closest to the planet take around two years to complete one lap Scott S. Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science who has led the discovery explained in a press release: “This kind of grouping of outer moons is also seen around Jupiter, indicating violent collisions occurred between moons in the Saturnian system or with outside objects such as passing asteroids or comets.”

An artist’s conception of the 20 newly discovered moons orbiting Saturn. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute. Starry background courtesy of Paolo Sartorio/Shutterstock.
An artist’s conception of the 20 newly discovered moons orbiting Saturn. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute. Starry background courtesy of Paolo Sartorio/Shutterstock.

The newly-found Saturnian moons were discovered using the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.

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“Using some of the largest telescopes in the world, we are now completing the inventory of small moons around the giant planets,” Sheppard explained. “They play a crucial role in helping us determine how our solar system’s planets formed and evolved.”

Finding new moons isn’t something new to Sheppard.

Just last year, Sheppard and his team found as many as 12 new satellites orbiting Jupiter.

The Carnegie Institution then invited citizens to participate in an online contest to choose the names of four of them. Such was the success of the call that, as Sheppard has advanced, they have decided to repeat the experience to name the new moons discovered on Saturn.

Among its many peculiarities, two of the most interesting moons in the solar system happen to revolve around Saturn: Titan and Enceladus. The first is the largest of those orbiting Saturn and has an atmosphere while Enceladus is a frozen world 500 kilometers in diameter. Together with Europe, a moon of Jupiter, these three distant satellites are considered some of the most promising places where life as we know it may exist, or have a chance of existing.