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The Ring System That Puts Saturn to Shame

Jan 26, 2015 06:00 PM EST
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Astronomers have recently discovered that an enormous ring system surrounding a planet simply known as J1407b are not super thin and spread out, but just as thick as other known and impressive rings. They are also hundreds of times larger. Eat your heart out Saturn.

The ring system was discovered around a world orbiting the young yellow star J1407 back in 2012. Consisting of over 30 rings, it was the first ring system of its kind to be found outside our own solar system. More stunning still, the rings occasionally eclipse J1407 - an event never before seen by astronomers.

The eclipse event has allowed experts to examine the rings in further detail, discovering that they are not only 200 times larger than Saturn's rings - each one stretching tens-of-millions of kilometers in diameter - but they are also much heavier.

"The star is much too far away to observe the rings directly, but we could make a detailed model based on the rapid brightness variations in the star light passing through the ring system," research lead Matthew Kenworthy explained in a statement. "The details that we see in the light curve are incredible. The eclipse lasted for several weeks, but you see rapid changes on time scales of tens of minutes as a result of fine structures in the rings."

Not only was the mass of these rings greater than Saturn's, but the researchers were also able to determine that the host planet, J1407b, is much larger than the gas giants in our own solar system. The researchers added that if we were to swap the foreign ring system for Saturn's, its light would be brighter than the Moon's on an average night.

In a study recently published in the Astrophysical Journal, Kenworthy and his colleagues add that the rings boast as much material as the four massive Galilean moons that orbit Jupiter. They suspect that in the future, the rings will start to thin and condense, creating similar moons.

"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," explained Eric Mamajek, who first discovered the rings. "This is the first snapshot of satellite formation on million-kilometer scales around a substellar object."

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