There’s a type of exoplanet that astronomers sometimes refer to as cotton candy planets, or super-puffs. They’re mysterious, because their masses don’t match up with their extremely large radii. The two characteristics imply a planet with an extremely low density.
In our Solar System, there’s nothing like them, and finding them in distant solar systems has been puzzling. Now a pair of astronomers might have figured it out.
A unique opportunity to study the dwarf planet Haumea has led to an intriguing discovery: Haumea is surrounded by a ring.
Add this to the already long list of unique things about the weird-shaped world with a dizzying rotation and a controversial discovery.
On January 21, 2017 Haumea passed in front of a distant star, in an event known as an occultation. The background star can – pardon the pun – shine a light on the object passing in front, providing information about a distant object — such as size, shape, and density — that is otherwise difficult to obtain. Since an occultation with Haumea had never been observed before, scientists were first eager, and then surprised.
“One of the most interesting and unexpected findings was the discovery of a ring around Haumea,” said said Pablo Santos-Sanz, from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) in a statement.
This is the first time a ring has been discovered around a trans-neptunian object, and the team said this discovery shows that the presence of rings could be much more common than was previously thought, in our Solar System as well as in other planetary systems.
“Twelve telescopes from ten different European observatories converged on the phenomenon,” said José Luis Ortiz, who led the observational effort, and is also from IAA-CSIC. “This deployment of technical means allowed us to reconstruct with a very high precision the shape and size of dwarf planet Haumea, and discover to our surprise that it is considerably bigger and less reflecting than was previously believed. It is also much less dense than previously thought, which answered questions that had been pending about the object.”
The team said their data shows that the egg-shaped Haumea measures 2,320 kilometers in its largest axis. Previous estimates from various observations put the size at roughly 1,400 km. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea rotate around its axis, much less than any other body in the Solar System that measures more than a hundred kilometers long. This rotational speed likely caused Haumea to flatten out, giving it an ellipsoid shape. It orbits the Sun in an elliptical loop that takes 284 years to complete. Additionally Haumea has two small moons.
Ortiz and team say their data shows the newly discovered ring lies on the equatorial plane of the dwarf planet, and it “displays a 3:1 resonance with respect to the rotation of Haumea, which means that the frozen particles which compose the ring rotate three times slower around the planet than it rotates around its own axis.”
Ortiz says there might be a few possible explanations for the formation of the ring; it may have originated in a collision with another object, or in the dispersal of surface material due to the planet’s high rotational speed.
Of course, other objects in our Solar System have rings: all the giant planets have rings, with Saturn’s being the most massive and well know. But small centaur asteroids located between Jupiter and Neptune were found to have rings, too.
“Now we have discovered that bodies even farther away than the centaurs, bigger and with very different general characteristics, can also have rings,” said Santos-Sanz.
You may recall there was great controversy over the discovery of Haumea. The discovery was originally announced in 2005 by Mike Brown from Caltech, along with his colleagues Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and David Rabinowitz, of Yale University.
But then Ortiz and Santos-Sanz attempted to scoop Brown et. al by sending in their claim to discovery to the Minor Planet Center before Brown’s paper was published. It was later learned that Ortiz and colleagues had accessed the Caltech observing logs remotely, looking at when and where Brown was looking with his telescopes. Ortiz and team initially denied the claims, but later conceded accessing the observation logs, maintaining they were just verifying whether they had discovered a new object in observations from 2003.
I asked Brown today if anything was ever officially resolved about the controversy.
“I think the resolution is that it is generally accepted that they stole our positions, but no one wants to think about it anymore,” he said via email.
But the discovery of a ring Haumea, Brown said, looks solid.
“I will admit to being wary of anything Ortiz says, so I checked the data very carefully,” Brown said. “Even I have to agree that the detection looks pretty solid. Haumea is weird, so it’s less surprising than, say, finding rings around something like Makemake. But, still, this was not something I was expecting!”
As the Cassini spacecraft moves ever closer to Saturn, new images provide some of the most-detailed views yet of the planet’s spectacular rings. From its “Ring-Grazing” orbit phase, Cassini’s cameras are resolving details in the rings as small as 0.3 miles (550 meters), which is on the scale of Earth’s tallest buildings.
On Twitter, Cassini Imaging Team Lead Carolyn Porco called the images “outrageous, eye-popping” and the “finest Cassini images of Saturn’s rings.”
Project Scientist Linda Spilker said the ridges and furrows in the rings remind her of the grooves in a phonograph record.
These images are giving scientists the chance to see more details about ring features they saw earlier in the mission, such as waves, wakes, and things they call ‘propellers’ and ‘straw.’
As of this writing, Cassini just started the 10th orbit of the 20-orbit ring-grazing phase, which has the spacecraft diving past the outer edge of the main ring system. The ring-grazing orbits began last November, and will continue until late April, when Cassini begins its grand finale. During the 22 finale orbits, Cassini will repeatedly plunge through the gap between the rings and Saturn. The first of these plunges is scheduled for April 26.
The spacecraft is actually close enough to the ‘F’ ring that occasionally tenuous particle strike Cassini, said project scientist Linda Spilker, during a Facebook Live event today.
“These are very small and tenuous, only a few microns in size,” Spilker said, “like dust particles you’d see in the sunlight. We can actually ‘hear’ them hitting the spacecraft in our data, but these particles are so small, they won’t hurt Cassini.”
Spilker has envisioned holding a ring particle in her hand. What would it look like?
“We have evidence of the particles that have an icy core covered with fluffy regolith material that is very porous,” she said, “and that means the particle can heat up and cool down very quickly compared to a solid ice cube.”
The straw features are caused by clumping ring particles and the propellers are caused by small, embedded moonlets that creates propeller shaped wakes in the rings.
This stunning view of the moon Daphnis shows the moon interacting with the ring particles, creating waves in the rings around it.
“These close views represent the opening of an entirely new window onto Saturn’s rings, and over the next few months we look forward to even more exciting data as we train our cameras on other parts of the rings closer to the planet,” said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini scientist who studies Saturn’s rings at the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California. Tiscareno planned the new images for the camera team.
If you try to apply simple common sense to how Saturn’s rings really work you’re going to be sorely mistaken: the giant planet’s signature features run circles around average Earthly intuition. This has been the case for centuries and is still true today after recent news from Cassini that the most opaque sections of rings aren’t necessarily the densest; with Saturn looks literally are deceiving.
Saturn’s Rings are amazing to behold. Since they were first observed by Galileo in 1610, they have been the subject of endless scientific interest and popular fascination. Composed of billions of particles of dust and ice, these rings span a distance of about 282,000 km (175,000 miles) – which is three quarters of the distance between the Earth and its Moon – and hold roughly 30 quintillion kilograms (that’s 3.0. x 1018 kg) worth of matter.
All of the Solar System’s gas giants, from Jupiter to Neptune, have their own ring system – albeit less visible and picturesque ones. Sadly, none of the terrestrial planets (i.e. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) have such a system. But just what would it look like if Earth did? Putting aside the physical requirements that it would take for a ring system to exist, what would it be like to look up from Earth and see beautiful rings reaching overhead?
Astronomers watching the repeated and drawn-out dimming of a relatively nearby Sun-like star have interpreted their observations to indicate an eclipse by a gigantic exoplanet’s complex ring system, similar to Saturn’s except much, much bigger. What’s more, apparent gaps and varying densities of the rings imply the presence of at least one large exomoon, and perhaps even more in the process of formation!
J1407 is a main-sequence orange dwarf star about 434 light-years away*. Over the course of 57 days in spring of 2007 J1407 underwent a “complex series of deep eclipses,” which an international team of astronomers asserts is the result of a ring system around the massive orbiting exoplanet J1407b.
“This planet is much larger than Jupiter or Saturn, and its ring system is roughly 200 times larger than Saturn’s rings are today,” said Eric Mamajek, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York. “You could think of it as kind of a super Saturn.”
The observations were made through the SuperWASP program, which uses ground-based telescopes to watch for the faint dimming of stars due to transiting exoplanets.
The first study of the eclipses and the likely presence of the ring system was published in 2012, led by Mamajek. Further analysis by the team estimates the number of main ring structures to be 37, with a large and clearly-defined gap located at about 0.4 AU (61 million km/37.9 million miles) out from the “super Saturn” that may harbor a satellite nearly as large as Earth, with an orbital period of two years.
Watch an animation of the team’s analysis of the J1407/J1407b eclipse below:
The entire expanse of J1407b’s surprisingly dense rings stretches for 180 million km (112 million miles), and could contain an Earth’s worth of mass.
“If we could replace Saturn’s rings with the rings around J1407b,” said Matthew Kenworthy from Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and lead author of the new study, “they would be easily visible at night and be many times larger than the full Moon.”
These observations could be akin to a look back in time to see what Saturn and Jupiter were like as their own system of moons were first forming.
“The planetary science community has theorized for decades that planets like Jupiter and Saturn would have had, at an early stage, disks around them that then led to the formation of satellites,” according to Mamajek. “However, until we discovered this object in 2012, no one had seen such a ring system. This is the first snapshot of satellite formation on million-kilometer scales around a substellar object.”
J1407b itself is estimated to contain 10-40 times the mass of Jupiter – technically, it might even be a brown dwarf.
Further observations will be required to observe another transit of J1407b and obtain more data on its rings and other physical characteristics as its orbit is about ten Earth-years long. (Luckily 2017 isn’t that far off!)
The team’s report has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.
We Earthlings love to dream, conjure and extrapolate. If you pose a question such as, “What if Earth had Saturn’s rings?” with all the resources available these days someone will not only answer the question but create some beautiful graphics to depict it! Yesterday, we saw this amazing graphic posted on reddit of a to-scale depiction of how Earth would look like with Saturn’s rings, and thanks to those who helped find the original source, the original image was created by John Brady at Astronomy Central. (We apologize… we originally credited the wrong person).
Rings are a tough phenomenon to spot. As late as 1977, astronomers thought that the only thing in the solar system with rings was the planet Saturn. Now, we can add the first asteroid to the list of ringed bodies nearby us. The asteroid 10199 Chariklo hosts two rings, perhaps due to a collision that caused a chain of debris circling its tiny surface.
Besides the 250-kilometer (155-mile) Chariklo, the only other ringed bodies known to us so far are (in order of discovery) Saturn, Uranus, Jupiter and Neptune.
“We weren’t looking for a ring and didn’t think small bodies like Chariklo had them at all, so the discovery — and the amazing amount of detail we saw in the system — came as a complete surprise,” stated Felipe Braga-Ribas of the National Observatory (Observatório Nacional) in Brazil, who led the paper about the discovery.
The rings came to light, so to speak, when astronomers watched Chariklo passing in front of the star UCAC4 248-108672 on June 3, 2013 from seven locations in South America. While watching, they saw two dips in the star’s apparent brightness just before and after the occultation. Better yet, with seven sites watching, researchers could compare the timing to figure out more about the orientation, shape, width and more about the rings.
The observations revealed what is likely a 12.4-mile (20-kilometer)-wide ring system that is about 1,000 times closer to the asteroid than Earth is to the moon. What’s more, astronomers suspect there could be a moon lying amidst the asteroid’s ring debris.
If these rings are the leftovers of a collision as astronomers suspect, this would give fodder to the idea that moons (such as our own moon) come to be from collisions of smaller bits of material. This is also a theory for how planets came to be around stars.
The rings haven’t been named officially yet, but the astronomers are nicknaming them Oiapoque and Chuí after two rivers near the northern and southern ends of Brazil.
Because these occultation events are so rare and can show us more about asteroids, astronomers pay attention when they occur. Part of the Eastern Seabord enjoyed a more recent asteroid-star occultation on March 20.
The original paper, “A ring system detected around the Centaur (10199) Chariklo”, will soon be available on the Nature website.
This summer, for the first time ever, the world was informed that its picture was going to be taken from nearly a billion miles away as the Cassini spacecraft captured images of Saturn in eclipse on July 19. On that day we were asked to take a moment and smile and wave at Saturn, from wherever we were, because the faint light from our planet would be captured by Cassini’s camera, shielded by Saturn from the harsh glare of the Sun.
A few preliminary images were released just a few days later showing the “pale blue dot” of Earth nestled within the glowing bands of Saturn’s rings. It was an amazing perspective of our planet, and we were promised that the full mosaic of Cassini images was being worked on and would be revealed in the fall.
“After much work, the mosaic that marks that moment the inhabitants of Earth looked up and smiled at the sheer joy of being alive is finally here. In its combination of beauty and meaning, it is perhaps the most unusual image ever taken in the history of the space program.”
In this panorama of the Saturnian system, a view spanning 404,880 miles (651,591 km), we see the planet silhouetted against the light from the Sun. It’s a unique perspective that highlights the icy, reflective particles that make up its majestic rings and also allows our own planet to be seen, over 900 million miles distant. And it’s not just Earth that was captured, but the Moon, Venus, and Mars were caught in the shot too.
According to the description on the CICLOPS page, “Earth’s twin, Venus, appears as a bright white dot in the upper left quadrant of the mosaic… between the G and E rings. Mars also appears as a faint red dot embedded in the outer edge of the E ring, above and to the left of Venus.”
This was no simple point-and-click. Over 320 images were captured by Cassini on July 19 over a period of four hours, and this mosaic was assembled from 141 of those images. Because the spacecraft, Saturn, and its moons were all in constant motion during that time, affecting not only positions but also levels of illumination, imaging specialists had to adjust for that to create the single image you see above. So while all elements may not be precisely where they were at the same moment in time, the final result is no less stunning.
“This version was processed for balance and beauty,” it says in the description. (And I’ve no argument with that.)
See below for an annotated version showing the position of all visible objects, and read the full article on the CICLOPS page for an in-depth description of this gorgeous and historic image.
“I hope long into the future, when people look again at this image, they will recall the moment when, as crazy as it might have seemed, they were there, they were aware, and they smiled.”