WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saturn is now recognized as the "Moon King" of our solar system. Another 20 astronomers are orbiting the giant ring planet, which is 82 – three more than Jupiter.
FILE PHOTO: One of the last glimpses of Saturn and its main rings taken by spaceship Cassini in images taken on October 28, 2016 and released on September 11, 2017. NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute / Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE IS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY / File Photo
The newly identified small moons, 3 to 6 km (2 to 4 miles) in diameter, were used of a Subaru telescope in Hawaii discovered by an investigation team led by astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington.
"Saturn is the Moon King," Sheppard said 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 Saturn at an astonishing distance of about 24 million kilometers, further away than any other moon. By comparison, the Earth's moon circles about 386,000 km from the planet.
Seventeen of the newly discovered Saturn moons orbit against the direction of rotation of the planet. The other three lanes turn in the same direction as they normally do.
A number of the moons appear to be fragments of once-larger moons that have dissolved in long-time collisions with other moons or passing comets or asteroids, Sheppard said. This is similar to some of the 79 moons orbiting Jupiter.
Saturn, a gas giant composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, is the second largest planet in the Solar System and the sixth from the Sun. With a diameter of 116,000 km (72,000 miles), the dwarf has an earth diameter of 12,700 km (7,900 miles).
Only Jupiter, the fifth planet in front of the Sun, is taller. Saturn formed with the other planets and the sun about 4.5 billion years ago.
"These new moons show us that the solar system in the distant past was a very chaotic place where objects flew everywhere. These are the last remnants of the objects that have formed in the Giant Planet region, since all the other objects that have formed in this region have either been ejected or built into the planets themselves, "Sheppard said.
The newly identified moons are much smaller than Saturn's largest moons, the icy world Titan, whose diameter of approximately 3,200 miles (5,150 km) exceeds that of the innermost planet Mercury.
"We believe that Saturn is likely to have about 100 moons larger than 1.6 km, but the discovery of these new moons, which are about two to four miles across, pushes the limit of our current ability to find them , We need the next generation of large telescopes to find smaller moons, "Sheppard added.
Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Peter Cooney