Rings Discovered on a Strange Dwarf Planet in Our Solar System

Wednesday, 11 October 2017 - 8:48PM
Space
Solar System
Wednesday, 11 October 2017 - 8:48PM
Rings Discovered on a Strange Dwarf Planet in Our Solar System
IAA-CSIC/UHU
If it were possible for a planet to be inherently cute, then Haumea would fit the bill.

Discovered in 2004, this tiny dwarf planet is just 600 miles from pole to pole (about twice the length of New York City), is shaped like an egg, and takes nearly 248 Earth years to complete a rotation around the sun. It's so far away that we don't have any particularly clear photos of the poor little rock, and instead have to study it by checking its shadow every time it passes in front of a particularly bright star.

A recent opportunity to take a better look at Haumea has led astronomers to an interesting discovery - in addition to having two decently sized moons, the dwarf planet also has Saturn-like rings that spin in perpetual orbit around it as it travels. This is a big deal not just for fans of miniature planets, but also for space study in general - this is the smallest extra-terrestrial body to display rings of this kind, which are normally seen on far heavier planets with a greater gravitational pull.



The study that brings us this new idea of Haumea's appearance also suggests that the dwarf planet may be heavier than previously assumed, perhaps even being fairly close to Pluto in weight - whatever Haumea is made of, it's clearly a pretty dense material that may have given the glorified paperweight the adequate gravitational pull necessary to attract and maintain a ring of intergalactic flotsam.

Alternatively, it could be the case that rings form naturally on planets that are far smaller than any we've been able to observe or conceive of thus far. There's no telling whether similar rings exist around dwarf planets across the entire cosmos, and we're ignorant to this simply because our own ability to observe distant bodies isn't as advanced as we'd like it to be.

If anything, this is a nice reminder that there's a lot we still don't know about the universe. We may be able to see the effects of black holes that exist far outside of our own galaxy, but that doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of interesting new discoveries to be made a lot closer to home.

Speaking to Gizmodo, CalTech planetary astrophysicist Konstantin Batygin says he's not surprised, as it's already theorized that a massive impact hit Haumea billions of years ago, which caused the planet to spin rapidly and also led to the creation of its two moons, Hiʻiaka and Namaka. It would make perfect sense that a cloud of debris from this impact could have turned into a planetary ring.

There's clearly a very interesting party going on in the solar system's outer rim - Pluto may not be classed as a planet anymore, but it's got more than enough cool friends to hang out with that it doesn't really seem like a big deal anymore. Hopefully we'll get some better pictures of these not-so-distant planets soon.
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