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Saturn Surges Ahead in the Solar System’s ‘Moon Race’, First to Have Over 100 Moons

A beautiful view of Saturn and its rings, as seen by Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Cornell

Saturn is the lord of the cosmic rings, and the king of moons, having more than 100 moons orbiting it.

Have you ever wondered how many moons the other planets in our solar system have? And what is the planet with the most number of moons? It turns out that Saturn is the king of moons, having more than 100 natural satellites orbiting it.

In an exciting development, Saturn has reclaimed its title as the planet with the most moons in our Solar System. An international team of astronomers, including researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC), discovered 62 new moons orbiting Saturn.

Saturn, Over 100 Moons

Dr. Edward Ashton, who initiated the research at UBC and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, compared tracking these moons to a challenging dot-to-dot game. “But with about 100 different games on the same page, you don’t know which dot belongs to which puzzle,” he elaborated.

Innovative Techniques Yield New Discoveries

For the past twenty years, scientists have examined Saturn’s surroundings for moons with increasing sensitivity. Ashton’s team utilized a ‘shift and stack’ technique to detect fainter Saturnian moons, a first for Saturn.

This method, previously used for Uranus and Neptune, involves moving a sequence of images at the rate of a moon’s movement across the sky. This enhances the moon’s signal, allowing previously unseen moons to become visible in the stacked image. The team used data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, between 2019 and 2021.

Confirmation of New Moons

The initial moon search took place in 2019, with Ashton and Matthew Beaudoin, both then students at UBC, meticulously examining the deep CFHT imaging acquired that year. However, spotting an object near Saturn doesn’t confirm it as a moon. It took the team two years of careful tracking to confirm 63 objects as new moons.

Characteristics and Groups of the Moons of Saturn

All new moons belong to the class of irregular moons, believed to have been captured by their host planet long ago. These moons clump into orbital groups based on the tilt of their orbits. Three such groups exist in the Saturnian system: the Inuit group, the Gallic group, and the Norse group, which has the highest population.

A Glimpse into Saturn’s Past

The groups likely result from past collisions, providing insight into the collisional history of Saturn’s irregular moon system. UBC professor and team member Dr. Brett Gladman explained, “We are finding increasing evidence that a moderate-sized moon orbiting backward around Saturn was blown apart something like 100 million years ago.”

The team’s studies suggest that many small moons on retrograde orbits result from a relatively recent disruption of a moderately sized irregular moon.

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