The Biggest Ring Around Saturn Is Much Bigger Than We Thought

Thursday, 18 June 2015 - 4:26PM
NASA
Astronomy
Solar System
Thursday, 18 June 2015 - 4:26PM
The Biggest Ring Around Saturn Is Much Bigger Than We Thought
Saturn is easily distinguishable from the other planets in our solar system for its beautiful and enigmatic rings. The largest of those rings is called the Phoebe ring, and scientists are now claiming that it is far larger than previously thought, at a whopping seven thousand times larger than Saturn itself.

"We knew it was the biggest ring, but now we find it's even bigger than we thought, new and improved," the study's lead author, Douglas Hamilton, told Space.com.

Original estimations were made based off of the findings of NASA's infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, which led scientists to believe that the Phoebe ring extended between distances of 128 to 207 times the radius of Saturn. This equates to about 12.5 times the average distance between Earth and the Moon, and about 10 times larger than Saturn's next largest ring, the E ring.

But as it turns out, the Phoebe ring's measurements are even more outrageous. New infrared images from NASA's WISE spacecraft show that the Phoebe ring actually extends between distances of 100 to 270 times the radius of Saturn. This is astronomical enough on its own, but researchers were quick to clarify that these new estimations were conservative. The Phoebe ring may actually extend between distances of 50 to more than 270 times the radius of Saturn.

Hamilton further explains that the Phoebe ring is made up of dark grains that absorb sunlight, which makes it much easier to detect if one looks for heat in the form of infrared radiation, as opposed to the emission of visible light. The tiny particles that compose it are typically between 10 to 20 microns in size, which equates to about one fifth of the thickness of a single strand of hair, and may be millions or even billions of years old.

"It's fascinating that this ring can exist," Hamilton said. "We're told in science textbooks that planetary rings are small and close to their parent planets - if they're too far away from their planets, moons form rather than rings. This discovery just turns that idea on its head - the universe is a more interesting and surprising place than we thought."

But now that they know this ring can, in fact, exist, scientists will attempt to find similar phenomena elsewhere in the universe. More specifically, Hamilton is convinced that Jupiter may have a similarly large ring: "Whenever a planet has a distant satellite, it will probably have a distant ring as well," he said. "We see Saturn's because it's bright enough to image; Jupiter's is probably fainter and harder to spot."
Science
Space
NASA
Astronomy
Solar System

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