Saturn Has 20 New Moons, Stealing The Top Spot For Planet With The Most Satellites

Saturn in all its glory. NASA/ESA/A. Simon (GSFC), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and the OPAL Team

Saturn is not only "Lord of The Rings" in the Solar System, it now holds the record for planet with the highest number of moons. The discovery of 20 new moons has been announced, taking the number of natural satellites around the ringed giant to 82. Jupiter is now in second place with 79.

A team led by Carnegie's Scott Sheppard discovered the moons, which are each roughly 5 kilometers (3 miles across), and significantly farther away from the planet than its more famous satellites Enceladus and Titan. Three of the new moons are prograde, they orbit in the same direction as the planet spins, while the other 17 are retrograde, going against the rotation. You can even be in with a chance of naming them.

Like many celestial objects, Saturn's moons are grouped and named for characters from various mythologies. The outer moons of Saturn are divided into three groups: Inuit, Gallic, and Norse, depending on their orbit. Two of the prograde moons belong to the Inuit group, whose names are taken from Inuit mythology. Their orbit is inclined by 46 degrees with respect to the orbit of the planet.

The retrograde moons are all part of the same group, the Norse, which have wider orbital inclination but they are all retrograde. The farthest moon of Saturn is now among these newly discovered bodies. Finally the last prograde moon is part of the Gallic group, named for Gallic mythology and inclined around 36 degrees. The most peculiar thing about the new prograde moon is its location. It’s farther out than all the other Gallic moons, and its smack in the middle of the Norse group. Influences from these retrograde moons might have pulled it farther out.

In keeping with these names, the new moons will be named after giants from each of the three mythologies, depending on their group.

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

Studying their orbits doesn’t just allow for the classification of these moons, it also gives important insights into their past, and even potential formation scenarios.

“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,” Sheppard said in a statement

“In the Solar System’s youth, the Sun was surrounded by a rotating disk of gas and dust from which the planets were born. It is believed that a similar gas-and-dust disk surrounded Saturn during its formation,” Sheppard said. “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.”

Sheppard and his team discovered a dozen new moons around Jupiter last year and gave the general public the chance to vote for the naming of five of them. Following their success, they are repeating it, but this time for all 20 of the new moons. Given that everyone knows a public vote on moon names would end up with at least one MoonyMcMoonface, there are some parameters: the names suggested have to belong to giants from Inuit, Gallic, and Norse mythology. To participate just tweet your suggestion to @SaturnLunacy with the hashtag #NameSaturnsMoons. 

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