Thursday, June 11, 2015

Saturn's Outer Ring Much Bigger Than Thought

WISE Band 4 mosaic of the Phoebe ring. Credit: (c) Nature 522, 185–187 (11 June 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14476

A small team of researchers with members affiliated with the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and Caltech, has found that the outermost ring of Saturn is much bigger than had been previously thought. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the team describes how they studied the ring using an infrared telescope and what they believe caused its immense size to come about.

Back in 2009, a team of researchers working with NASA's infrared Spitzer Space Telescope discovered that there was an outer ring circling Saturn that had not been known to exist—made mostly of extremely tiny dark dust particles, the ring was difficult to see. They estimated at the time that the ring was likely over two hundred times the radius of its host planet.

In this new effort, the researchers studied images taken from NASA's WISE probe, which has also been taking infrared pictures. Those pictures, the team reports, suggest the ring is actually over 270 times the radius of Saturn, which mean it stretches from almost four million miles from the planet to just over ten million miles, making it approximately ten times the size of the E ring, until this new discovery, Saturn's largest ring. Putting it into perspective, if Saturn were merely the size of a basketball, this new outer ring would extend nearly two thirds the length of a football field away from it.

The ring has only been revealed by infrared cameras because the dust particles in it absorb heat from the sun—such particles the researchers report are extremely small, just microns in size. They also report that there are some other much larger, though far less in number particles, some as large as soccer balls. Because of the huge distance between the ring and planet, the researchers theorize that the material in the ring is probably very old, perhaps in the billions of years. They also suspect the tiny particles are material ejected from the distant moon Phoebe.

Prior to the discovery of Saturn's largest ring, it was believed material ejected from moons at such a distance would coalesce into a new moon, rather than form a ring—now it appears such theories will have to be rethought. Also, because of similarities between Saturn's moons and Jupiter's moons, the researchers suspect Jupiter likely has a massive unseen ring around it as well.


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