Science

Saturn overtakes Jupiter as planet with most moons

Saturn overtakes Jupiter as planet with most moons”

"I was so thrilled with the amount of public engagement over the Jupiter moon-naming contest that we've made a decision to do another one to name these newly discovered Saturnian moons", Sheppard said.

The discovery of 20 previously unknown moons around Saturn has helped the ring planet surpass all others in our solar system, according to the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center.

The other 17 new moons are retrograde moons - unlike the Inuit and Norse moons, they travel in the opposite direction to Saturn's rotation. "The fact that these newly discovered moons were able to continue orbiting Saturn after their parent moons broke apart indicates that these collisions occurred after the planet-formation process was mostly complete and the disks were no longer a factor". They're so far from Saturn that it takes two to three years to complete a single orbit. And by looking at their inclinations, astronomers suspect that these moons could have been part of a much larger moon that broke apart long ago.

The planet - the largest in the solar system - is closer to Earth than Saturn, making its moons much easier to spot with a less powerful telescope.

"Studying the orbits of these moons can reveal their origins, as well as information about the conditions surrounding Saturn at the time of its formation", Sheppard said. Saturn image courtesy of NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute. If these tiny moons had to plow through all that material on their way around Saturn, friction would have sapped their speed and sent them spiraling into the planet.

One last one (in green) is an "oddball", just like Jupiter's "Valetudo".

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Dr Sheppard said more moons were probably waiting to be found around Saturn. The two new moons, will be given names from Inuit mythology.

Scientists were able to locate the new moons thanks to more robust computing power and better algorithms for tracking faint distant objects, Sheppard said. "If an asteroid happens to be passing by, you can't capture it today because you can't dissipate its energy", Dr Sheppard told BBC News. Sorry, but Saturn McSaturnFace won't be allowed, as the names have to conform to their mythological groupings, along with other naming conventions. The previously unknown moon (highlighted by orange bars) moves against a backdrop of stars and galaxies that appear still due to their distance.

The newly reported discoveries mean Jupiter is back in the No. 2 position when it comes to tallies of known moons. The details of the contest and instructions onhow to take part can be found here.

"It's exciting to find them", said Scott Sheppard, an astronomer who led the work at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC.

However, it's not just a quirky new find or something topic students will have to learn - learning more about these moons could teach us something new about the evolution of their host planets, and the solar system as a whole.

Two of the moons are part of a group of moons called the Inuit group, whose original members were discovered by Canadian astronomers and named by team member John Kavelaars, now at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, and Inuit storyteller and children's author Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak. And even if it does have fewer satellites than Saturn, it will always have the most inhospitable radiation environment!



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