20 New Moons Discovered Around Saturn!

Discover the fascinating discovery of 20 new moons around Saturn and learn how they were found. Find out the implications and potential for future exploration.

Video of the day December 10th 2019

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Wait, Saturn Has How Many Moons Now? And How Did We “Just Find” The Rest?

If you’re wondering how many moons Saturn officially has now, that would be 82 as of October 2019, which means Saturn is now the planet in our solar system with the most moons. Which is quite a feat as Jupiter was the planet who had the most moons with 79. Which was already a massive number, yet Saturn is now the moon king with 82.

Can you picture that? Think about what Earth would be like if it had 82 moons orbiting around it in various kinds of ways. Granted, they would have to be proportioned the right way because Saturn is much bigger than Earth, but still, try and picture it. Think about all those moons in the night sky, and the effects they would have on our planet…it’s hard to think about, right?

But I’m sure you’re wondering one simple question, “How did we miss all of these moons? I mean, haven’t we been watching Saturn for a long time now?” And yeah, it may seem odd that these moons are just now being discovered, and we’ll break down what makes these particular moons so special. But in short, you need to remember one thing about space…we’re not watching it like a television, we’re more akin to watching it like a series of still images.

Sure, we have satellites and probes in space that provide imagery from the solar system and technically beyond, beyond those are just images and not video footage. So even at the best of times we’re missing potential key information within the time it takes to take those two pictures. That’s why there’s still so much about space that we don’t know about.

So missing a couple dozen moons? Yeah, that’s par for the course to be honest.

Not The First Time New Moons Were Discovered In Recent Years

But here’s a twist on the new moons that were found around Saturn, we should’ve gotten clues much earlier that they were there. Not because of grand cosmological events that were going on, or even technology growth, but rather, in 2004, we found two new moons around Saturn. And the two that were found were very much like the ones that we just discovered.

The moons themselves were found by the NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens spacecraft and were first viewed by Dr Sebastien Charnoz, a planetary dynamicist working with the imaging team at the University of Paris. What was another twist on this was that one of the moons that was found was technically spotted by a craft 23 years prior to that, but they didn’t know it was a moon.

How does that work? Simple, the moons that were found weren’t that big. One was three kilometers across, and the other was only 4 kilometers across. That’s pretty small for a moon, especially considering some of the other moons that are currently orbiting Saturn like Titan. We talked about this moon in this post.

Another key part of this was that the moons were actually within the orbits of other moons. Not orbiting other moons to be clear (as that would both be slightly impossible and also mean it’s not a moon) but rather by being in the direct paths of their orbits. So that made it hard to distinguish and find them since the smallest Saturian moon before that point was 20 kilometers across. It also didn’t help that their orbits took them much farther from the planet than you would expect for such small moons, so it’s a wonder that we found them at all.

One more thing, at the time of that discovery, the moons of Saturn were only about 33, so that means we’ve found 50 new moons since then basically, including the 20 that were recently found.

The 20 New Moons

Alright, so let’s now move on to the new moons that have been discovered around Saturn. They were found by Carnegie Institution for Science’s Scott S. Sheppard and his team in 2019. And this is where things get interesting. As noted in the last entry, Saturn has been known to have small moons, but each of the 20 that were just found are no bigger than 5 kilometers.

That’s a lot of small moons, but if you can believe it, that’s not the weirdest thing about this new set of moons. That would be that these moons…rotate backwards. Or at least 17 of them do. They have what is known as a “retrograde orbit”, meaning that they go around the planet in the opposite direction of the other moons.

This kind of rotation is not unheard of, but it is weird that this many of the new moons have that kind of orbit. Though it could speak to how we weren’t able to see these new moons until now. Because if we’re looking for something going one direction, and yet we find something going in another direction…would we care about what we saw?

Regardless, the discovery of these moons is huge, as it shows we’re getting better at spotting things like this, and that there could be even more discoveries like this for planets like Saturn and even Jupiter in the future:

“Using some of the largest telescopes in the world, we are now completing the inventory of small moons around the giant planets,” Sheppard said. “They play a crucial role in helping us determine how our Solar System’s planets formed and evolved.”

But that does raise one big question, why is it these planets have so many moons?

Titan Saturn

The Birth Of New Moons

So let’s get to the heart of this matter, there are a LOT of small moons around Saturn, and a lot of them have been discovered in the last 15 years or so. But, obviously, these moons have been around for a long, LONG time. Surely they can’t have just appeared and then we noticed them. And they didn’t. But how then did they get made?

Well, when we think of moons, we think of celestial bodies that came around during the big bang, or are the remnants of planets that have been damaged (which is what many people think of our moons). But there’s another way of thinking about it. And that’s that there were moons or other massive rocky bodies in space that collided together, broke apart, and then eventually formed small moons.

It’s not as unlikely as you might expect given the very nature of space in regards to various amounts of flying debris. Plus, this would explain why some of these moons are in such tight groupings:

“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,” explained Sheppard.

This potential explanation for the moons also gives credence to certain beliefs about the solar system and the universe at large.

“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.”

Given these factors, it’s possible that Saturn, Jupiter, and maybe other planets in the outer limits of the solar system have moons that we honestly haven’t discovered yet. All we have to do is go and find them.

“Studying the orbits of these moons can reveal their origins, as well as information about the conditions surrounding Saturn at the time of its formation,” Sheppard said.

How To Name A Moon

In biology, there is a certain unwritten rule about brand new discoveries. Mainly, if you discover a new species of life, from an animal down to a bacteria or virus, you are able to name it whatever you want. And that has led to some interesting names (in the scientific sense at least) over the years. Such as a bacteria named after Sonic The Hedgehog, or a snail being named after Steve Irwin (at least one of these makes sense when you look it up, I promise).

So that brings up the question of celestial bodies and how you name them. Usually, when you think about planets outside of our solar system, they’re named after stars, or have a certain scientific name attached to them with lots of numbers and letters strewn together. But in our solar system at least, we like to have a little more fun with everything. Mainly, we like to name the moons after mythologies, and according to Dr. Sheppard, this will be no different. However, he and his team won’t be naming them, you will be:

“I was so thrilled with the amount of public engagement over the Jupiter moon-naming contest that we’ve decided to do another one to name these newly discovered Saturnian moons,” Sheppard said. “This time, the moons must be named after giants from Norse, Gallic or Inuit mythology.

Yep, it’s true, if you got to this website and get a name in before December 6th, you’ll be in the running to have named one of Saturn’s 20 new moons. But remember, you’re going to be going up against a lot of people, so many try and go for one of the lesser gods that isn’t being named by everyone else. Just a tip to consider.

So consider this a fun way to celebrate the new moons being found.

What These Moons Mean In The Grander Sense

Ok, so we’ve broken down how the moons have been found, where they may have come from, how we missed them for so long and even how they are going to be named. But that leaves us with…what now? What are we going to do with these moons that we have just discovered? A good question, and as with all questions of this nature, it has to do with us (humanity) as a species, and our hope for our future amongst the stars.

You see, while many people just think about Mars, or Venus, or some worlds that are outside of our solar system as the places that humanity will habitate eventually, there are many in NASA and beyond that are looking at moons for us to live on. One of the best candidates for example is the Saturn moon of Titan, which has not only an atmosphere, but also plenty of gasses for us to make power from and thus ensure that we could live a self-sustained life there.

And that’s just with one moon, now imagine that being across 20 or so.

Could We Really Live On Any Of These New Moons?

So yes, this brings up a fair point about whether we could live on a moon that is only about 5 kilometers across, and what would be the point of living on such a small moon.

On one hand, you’re right, even in the best of circumstances a 5-kilometer wide moon wouldn’t be able to fit a whole bunch of people. But, it would be able to fit some. What’s more, it could be used maybe not as a colony for a whole bunch of people, but instead a waypoint station that would be a stopping point for those who are traveling to certain areas of the solar system. Not unlike how certain islands are treated as “refueling stations” on Earth because of their size and location.

Obviously, we’re jumping the gun a bit because we know next to nothing about these moons outside of the fact that they exist. But, they do exist, and if even one of them has the potential, large or small, to house humanity in any way, we might just take that bet.

Especially since humanity is trying to make its way to Mars in the next few years or so. And if we do go to Titan eventually, having a waypoint station on another moon of Saturn could make things much easier. Or, it could be a moon of Jupiter, you never know.

The point is, the possibilities are there, we just need to wait and see if they’ll be brought to light.

The Moon Question

There’s been a lot of facts and figures and stats thrown at you in this video, but let’s boil it all down, shall we? Saturn now has 82 moons, and now there’s a potential that Jupiter, Saturn, and the other gas giants in the solar system have even more moons than we’ve ever dared to think about. What does this mean?

Simple, it means we need to learn even more about our solar system. We need to point our eyes to the stars above and see what else is waiting for us out there. It’s 2019 and we’ve learned that there are things floating out there that we had no clue about. That’s scary, but it’s also exciting. Because if we’ve missed ALL of these moons, what else have we missed? What else could be out there waiting for us? What is the next big discovery that we are going to make?

We don’t know, but that’s part of the fun, the mystery. What’s next?

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