Saturn and its breathtaking rings are one of the most popular objects in our solar system. But, it’s the ring we can’t see that has scientists excited today. Doug Hamilton from the University of Maryland and several other researchers used NASA’s WISE telescope to see the massive ring in infrared.
And, it’s even bigger than scientists expected.
This ring was first discovered in October 2009 by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Here’s how Anne Verbiscer, an astronomer at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, described the ring at the time.
“If you could see the ring, it would span the width of two full moons’ worth of sky, one on either side of Saturn,” said Verbiscer.
The most recent research nails down the full size of the ring. Hamilton told NPR the ring is “more than 200 times as big across as Saturn itself.” Or, ten times as big as Saturn’s famous E ring. But, the particles making up the ring are not even the width of a human hair.
How does that compare to Saturn’s trademark rings? Some of those pieces can get as big as a house.
Saturn’s moon Phoebe is the likely source
Scientists have pointed the finger at Saturn’s distant moon Phoebe as the source. Some point in the past, a meteor or comet slammed into Phoebe and sent tons of debris outward.
The ring has several other weird characteristics. It’s tilted 27 degrees from the main ring plane and orbits Saturn backwards, just like Phoebe.
The discovery of this ring, dubbed the Phoebe ring, may never have happened if it wasn’t for a peculiar feature on another one of Saturn’s moons.
The stark contrast in colors immediately jumps out at you. One side of Iapetus’ surface is bright white. The other is dark. Iapetus is just like our moon; one side always faces its planet. The far side of Iapetus is leading the charge through space and flying through the Phoebe ring.
The particles might not be big, but Phoebe’s surface is incredibly dark – with an albedo of 0.06.
That explains why Iapetus’ bright, icy surface is smudged black on one side.
I’ll leave you with this interesting fact of Phoebe. It was the first satellite to be discovered photographically. William Henry Pickering discovered Phoebe in 1899.
The study was published today in the journal Nature.
Image credits: NASA