The solar system has a new winner in the department of the moon.
Twenty new moons have been found around Saturn, giving a total of 82 to the ringed planet, the scientists said Monday. This beats Jupiter and its 79 moons.
"It was fun to discover that Saturn is the true king of the moon," said astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science.
If it is a consolation for the crowd of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system – Jupiter – still has the largest moon. The Ganymede of Jupiter is almost half of the Earth. In contrast, the 20 new Saturn moons are tiny, each with a diameter of just five kilometers.
Dr. Sheppard and his team used a telescope in Hawaii to locate the 20 new Saturn moons during the summer. About 100 even smaller moons could be in orbit around Saturn, still waiting to be found, he said.
Astronomers have practically completed the inventory of the moons just 5 km from Saturn and 1.6 km from Jupiter, according to Dr. Sheppard. Future larger telescopes will be needed to see something smaller.
It is more difficult to identify the mini moons around Saturn than to Jupiter, said Dr. Sheppard, given how much more Saturn is.
"So, seeing that Saturn has more moons even though it is more difficult to find them, it shows how many moons have accumulated Saturn over time," he wrote in an e-mail. These moons may have originated from larger parental moons that broke immediately after the formation of Saturn.
Seventeen of Saturn's new moons orbit the planet in the opposite or retrograde direction. The other three circles in the same direction in which Saturn rotates. They are so far from Saturn that it takes two to three years to complete a single orbit.
"These moons are the remains of the objects that helped to form the planets, so by studying them, we are learning from what the planets were formed", wrote Dr. Sheppard.
Just last year, Dr. Sheppard found 12 new moons around Jupiter. The Carnegie Institution has organized a competition to name the moon; another is scheduled now for the new Saturn moons.
The jury has not yet decided whether any planets beyond our solar system have even more moons. For now, Saturn has the best known moons.
Monday's announcement came from the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union.
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