Saturn reclaims 'moon king' title with 62 newfound satellites, bringing total to 145

This Hubble Space Telescope image of Saturn, captured in June 2018, shows six of the planet’s 145 known moons. The visible satellites are (from left to right) Dione, Enceladus, Tethys, Janus, Epimetheus and Mimas. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC) and the OPAL Team, and J. DePasquale (STScI))

Astronomers have discovered 62 new moons orbiting the ringed planet Saturn. 

The satellite haul brings the planet's total number of moons to over 100 and also means the gas giant takes back the crown as the solar system's "moon king" from Jupiter.

Prior to this discovery, Saturn had 83 moons recognized by the International Astronomical Union, so the new batch brings the total number to an incredible 145. The discovery marks another milestone for Saturn, with the planet becoming the first world in the cosmos known to be orbited by more than 100 moons. 

Related: The rings and moons of Saturn (photos)

This six-image mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft captures Saturn, its rings and the planet's giant moon Titan. The probe snapped the shots on May 6, 2012, when it was about 483,000 miles from Titan.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The new moons were discovered by a team led by Edward Ashton, a postdoctoral fellow at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, who used a technique called "shift and stack" to find these smaller and fainter moons around Saturn. 

The technique uses a set of images shifting at the same speed at which a moon moves through the sky to enhance the signal from that moon. Moons that are too faint to be seen in single images can reveal themselves in the resultant "stacked image."

Astronomers have used this method to search for moons around the ice giants Neptune and Uranus, but this is the first time it has been applied to the solar system's second-largest planet, Saturn. 

The data used by the team was collected between 2019 and 2021 in three-hour spans by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on top of Maunakea in Hawaii. It allowed the astronomers to detect moons around Saturn as small as 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometers) in diameter. That's about two-thirds the length of Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Though some of the moons had been spotted as early as 2019, it takes more than sighting an object close to a planet to confirm it is a moon and not an asteroid making a brief close passage to that planet. To change these objects from "suspected moons" to "confirmed moons" of Saturn, the astronomers had to track them for several years to ensure each is actually orbiting the gas giant. 

Performing a painstaking process of matching objects detected on different nights over the course of 24 months, the team tracked 63 objects that they ended up confirming as moons. One of these satellites was revealed back in 2021, with the remaining 62 moons gradually announced over the past few weeks. 

"Tracking these moons makes me recall playing the kid's game Dot-to-Dot, because we have to connect the various appearances of these moons in our data with a viable orbit," Ashton said in a statement. "But with about 100 different games on the same page, and you don't know which dot belongs to which puzzle."

Related: Solar system planets, order and formation: A guide

Saturn's irregular moons may have a violent history

The newly discovered moons of Saturn are classified as "irregular moons." This term refers to objects that are believed to have been captured by a planet's gravitational influence and end up orbiting it on large, flattened or "elliptical" paths that are more inclined in comparison to the orbits of regular moons. 

Saturn now has 121 known irregular moons along with its 24 regular moons. Irregular moons like these new ones tend to bunch up in groupings depending on the tilt of their orbits. Saturn's system currently hosts three of these groupings — the Inuit group, the Gallic group and the densely populated Norse group, all of which take their names from different mythologies. 

All of the newfound moons of Saturn fall into one of these three currently existing groupings. Three of the new moons belong to the Inuit group, but the majority fit in the Norse group.

The moons in these three groups are believed to have been created when larger moons around Saturn originally captured by the gas giant slammed together and fragmented. Investigating the orbits of Saturn's irregular moons could help astronomers better understand the history of such collisions in the gas giant system.

The team behind the new discovery thinks that the large number of tiny moons in a retrograde orbit around Saturn (that is, opposite in direction to the planet's orbit) is evidence of a collision between irregular moons around the gas giant as recently as 100 million years ago. This collision is believed to have created the moons in the Norse group. 

"As one pushes to the limit of modern telescopes, we are finding increasing evidence that a moderate-sized moon orbiting backward around Saturn was blown apart something like 100 million years ago," team member and University of British Columbia astronomer Brett Gladman said in the same statement.

Jupiter leap-frogged Saturn for the moon crown in February 2023 when 12 new moons were found around the solar system's largest planet, bringing the total number of known Jovian moons to 92.

But the moon title is not set in stone; it could change hands again as astronomers' techniques for discovering moons continue to improve.

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.

  • sciencecompliance
    I think this falls under the category of "mildly interesting". I don't really think the number of moons is as interesting as the number of sizeable moons and the total mass in orbit around the planet. Jupiter can claim all the Trojan asteroids as being under its spell, too, even if they're not directly in orbit.

    All that aside, it's not just the size of your moon list but how you use it, too. Saturn has potentially the most interesting moon in the solar system in Titan. Other than Earth, it is the only other body that has sizeable, stable pools of liquid on its surface and a liquid cycle. It's also the only moon with a dense atmosphere.
  • AstroJake
    It’s interesting to read about new discoveries and how technology and creative techniques are being applied to uncover new information. But then you had to poison the article by injecting your religious beliefs. Why?
  • rod
    "The newly discovered moons of Saturn are classified as "irregular moons." This term refers to objects that are believed to have been captured by a planet's gravitational influence and end up orbiting it on large, flattened or "elliptical" paths that are more inclined in comparison to the orbits of regular moons."

    I would ask how long have these small moons been orbiting Saturn and how long are they stable? Consider the newer reports about Saturn ring age problem.
  • bolide
    How small can a "moon" be? After all, there are millions of little rocks in Saturn's rings. Are they "moons," too? Why, or why not?
  • 김세현
    토성의 고리는 부서져야 합니다. 토성에서 블랙홀까지의 과정.

    Mod EditTranslation:
    Saturn's rings must break. The process from Saturn to a black hole.

    Please post in English