World / Science & Health

Discovery of 20 new moons using Subaru telescope puts Saturn ahead of Jupiter

AP, Staff Report

The solar system has a new winner in the moon department.

Twenty new moons have been found around Saturn, giving the ringed planet a total of 82, scientists said Monday. That beats Jupiter and its 79 moons.

“It was fun to find that Saturn is the true moon king,” said astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

If it’s any consolation to those with a fondness for Jupiter, our solar system’s biggest planet still has the biggest moon. Jupiter’s Ganymede is almost half the size of Earth. By contrast, Saturn’s 20 new moons are minuscule, each barely 3 miles (5 kilometers) in diameter.

Sheppard and his team used Japan’s Subaru telescope in Hawaii to spot Saturn’s 20 new moons over the summer. The Subaru telescope is operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, and is located at the Mauna Kea Observatory. About 100 even tinier moons may be orbiting Saturn, still waiting to be found, according to Sheppard.

Astronomers have pretty much completed their inventory of moons as small as 3 miles (5 km) around Saturn and 1 mile (1.6 km) around Jupiter, he said. Future larger telescopes will be needed to see anything smaller.

It’s harder spotting mini moons around Saturn than Jupiter, Sheppard added, given how much farther away Saturn is.

“So seeing that Saturn has more moons even though it is harder to find them, shows just how many moons Saturn has collected over time,” he wrote in an email. It’s thought these baby moons may have come from larger parent moons that broke apart right after Saturn formed.

Seventeen of Saturn’s new moons orbit the planet in the opposite, or retrograde, direction. The other three circle in the same direction that Saturn rotates. They’re so far from Saturn that it takes two to three years to complete a single orbit.

“These moons are the remnants of the objects that helped form the planets, so by studying them, we are learning about what the planets formed from,” Sheppard wrote.

Just last year, Sheppard found 12 new moons around Jupiter. The Carnegie Institution had a moon-naming contest for them, and another is planned now for Saturn’s new moons.

The jury is still out on whether any planets beyond our solar system have even more moons. For now, Saturn has the most known moons.

Monday’s announcement came from the Minor Planet Center at the International Astronomical Union.