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Scientific research. Saturn has become the “king of the moons” again

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Saturn has once again become the record holder for the number of natural satellites. Scientists have discovered more than 60 new moons that orbit the solar system’s second largest planet. Many of them are tiny celestial bodies up to 2.5 kilometers in diameter, discovered only through specialized analytical techniques.

Which planet of the solar system has the most moons? For a long time, Saturn was in first place with 83 accompanying celestial bodies, however, in February, scientists announced finding new moons around Jupiter. Thus, the largest planet of the solar system with 92 satellites became the “king of moons”, and since then three more have been discovered. However, Jupiter did not enjoy the title of record holder for long.

Like connecting the dots

To observe Saturn’s moons, an international team of scientists used images taken by the Canada-French-Hawaiian Telescope (CFHT) on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. To find tiny, dark objects around the giant planet, the researchers used a technique that involves analyzing a sequence of images taken at the rate at which celestial bodies move across the sky.

“Tracking these moons is a bit like playing a game of connecting the dots, because we have to match the appearance of these moons in our data with their actual orbit,” explained lead author of the study Edward Ashton of the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica University. – The problem is that there are about 100 pictures on the same page, and we don’t know which dot belongs to which.

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By arranging sequences of images taken three hours apart, the researchers detected Saturn’s moons up to 2.5 kilometers across. Over the course of two years of observations, the team managed to track down 63 objects, one of which was announced in 2021. The remaining satellites have been known in recent weeks.

Saturn’s newly discovered moons have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union. This means that there are at least 145 natural satellites orbiting the second largest planet in the solar system. So not only has Saturn regained the title of “King of the Moons”, it is also the first planet to have more than 100 moons discovered.

Saturn and Titan, the largest of its moonsNASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Irregular celestial bodies

The new moons belong to the group of irregular moons (Saturn has 121 in total) characterized by elliptical, inclined orbits. They tend to cluster together according to the inclination of their orbits. There are three such groups orbiting Saturn, whose names come from different mythologies: Inuit, Gaulish and Norse. Most of the new objects belong to the latter.

The researchers added that the groups may be the result of a past collision, and that the small satellites are remnants of larger objects that were captured by Saturn long ago. A better understanding of the distribution of orbits therefore provides insights into the history of the moon system.

‘We are finding increasing evidence that Saturn’s retrograde, medium-sized moon was torn to pieces about 100 million years ago,’ explained Brett Gladman of the University of British Columbia, co-author of the study. Scientists point out that it probably gave rise to the Nordic group of satellites.

Enceladus against the background of Saturn’s rings in the lens of the Cassini probe, June 28, 2007NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

University of British Columbia

Main photo source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute



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