"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", said Dr Sheppard. They say the moons are barely 5 kilometers in diameter and have only been discovered now because of advances in technology that include better telescopes and computing power. Seventeen of them have retrograde orbits, meaning they move around Saturn in the opposite direction to the planet's rotation.
Carnegie Institute of Science astronomer Scott Sheppard and his team used the Subaru telescope in Hawaii to find the moons.
"I was so thrilled with the amount of public engagement over the Jupiter moon-naming contest that we've made a decision to do another one to name these newly discovered Saturnian moons", Sheppard said. Using some of the largest telescopes in the world, we are now completing the inventory of small moons around the giant planets.
By studying these small moons and their interactions with our solar system's large planets, astronomers can answer questions about how these worlds were formed and how they've evolved.
Two of the prograde moons are relatively close to the planet, completing an elliptical orbit every two Earth years or so, while the rest of the pack are further out, taking over three years. One of the newly discovered satellites, codenamed S/2004 S24, in this group is the most distant Saturnian moon.
These inclinations suggest that the new moons could be chunks of ice and rock leftover from a larger moon that split apart in Saturn's past, Sheppard explained to The Register.
A third moon is part of a similar group called the Norse group that will be given names from Norse mythology.
At the birth of the solar system, vast amounts of dust and gas circling the sun coalesced into the eight known planets. One of them is now the farthest known moon from Saturn.
The team of scientists have also tried to categorize the moons by their inclinations; they can broadly be classified into three different clusters: the Inuit, Norse, and Gallic groups.
The 17 retrograde moons appear to belong to the "Norse group" of Saturn satellites, which share the same basic orbital parameters. So they were captured into orbits around the planet rather than falling into the planet.
The team has initiated a contest to name the moons. Meanwhile, the success of the naming contests is a testament to modern astronomy and how the public is becoming involved in the discovery process like never before.
Dr Sheppard said more moons were probably waiting to be found around Saturn.