WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saturn is now being recognized as the "king of the moon" of our solar system, with astronomers spotting 20 more orbiting the giant planet, raising its total count to 82 – three more than Jupiter.
FILE PHOTO: One of the last glances at Saturn and its main rings, captured by the Cassini spacecraft in images taken on October 28, 2016 and released on September 11, 2017. NASA / JPL-Caltech / Institute of Space Sciences / Disclosure via REUTERS
The newly identified small moons, 3 to 6 km in diameter, were detected by the Subaru telescope in Hawaii by a research team led by astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington.
"Saturn is the king of the moon," Sheppard said on Wednesday in an email interview.
The discovery was announced this week by the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union.
One of the moons orbits at an astonishing distance of about 24 million miles (24 million kilometers) from Saturn, farther than any of the other moons. By comparison, the Earth's moon orbits about 240,000 miles (386,000 km) from the planet.
Seventeen of the newly detected Saturnian moons are orbiting in the opposite direction of the planet's rotation. The other three orbits in the same direction as Saturn rotates, as is typically the case.
Several moons appear to be fragments of once larger moons that have broken into collisions long ago with other moons or comets or passing asteroids, Sheppard said. This is similar to some of the 79 moons that orbit Jupiter.
Saturn, a gas giant composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, is the second largest planet in the solar system and the sixth sun. Its diameter about 72,000 miles (116,000 km) in dwarf land diameter of about 7,900 miles (12,700 km).
Only Jupiter, the fifth planet from the sun, is larger. Saturn formed with the other planets and the sun about 4.5 billion years ago.
“These new moons show us that the solar system was a very chaotic place in the distant past, with objects flying all over the place. These are the last remnants of the objects that formed in the giant region of the planet, as all other objects that formed in this region were ejected or incorporated into the planets themselves, ”Sheppard said.
The newly identified moons are much smaller than the largest on Saturn, the icy world of Titan, whose diameter of about 5,150 km exceeds that of the most intimate planet, Mercury.
“We believe Saturn is likely to be about 100 moons larger than a mile, but the discovery of these new moons about two to four miles in size is pushing the limit of our current ability to find them. We'll need the next generation of large telescopes to find smaller moons, ”Sheppard added.
Will Dunham report; Editing by Peter Cooney
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