Saturn and its dust rings are already well established within common knowledge of planets in our solar system. However, we’ve never been able to fully get a perfect look at one of the newest ones. Now, thanks to a team of University of Maryland, University of Virginia and California Institute of Technology researchers, we have finally found a way to reveal this new ring, called the Phoebe ring, in all of its glory. They also discovered that this ring is the biggest is the entire solar system.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE PHOEBE RING
“For the first time ever, we have the ring image in its entirety,” University of Maryland’s Douglas Hamilton said proudly. But he was not alone, as University of Virginia’s Michael Skrutskie and CalTech’s Anne Verbiscer also stumbled upon the ring along with him.
“We know how big this ring is now and we didn’t before,” Hamilton continued. “The outer edge is starting to give us interesting information about what is happening inside the ring, the forces and processes that make it function.”
DETAILS OF THE PHOEBE RING ITSELF
This new ring around Saturn was originally discovered back in 2009, and currently rests at the far ends of the Saturnian system, with an orbit tilted 27 degrees from its main ring plane. A large portion of its material begins nearly 4 million miles away from the planet and extends outward roughly 7.4 million miles. To illustrate its massive size, it’d take about a billion Earths placed directly next to each other to fill the voluminous ring. Hamilton and his colleagues theorize that the material for the ring comes from one of the moons farthest from Saturn, Phoebe – hence the ring’s name.
And with some additional information on the particles, the researchers were able to gain solid proof that this new ring is the reason Saturn’s moon’s Iapetus happens to be shaded darkly on one side and bright on the other. The astronomer Giovanni Cassini was the first person ever to have spotted the moon, centuries ago in 1671, and years later discovered it has a dark side, which is now named Cassini Regio, in his honor.
“The Phoebe ring is absolutely immense and so it’s huge wide open spaces and very few particles,” Hamilton said. “What this means is the collision times are really, really long so the lifetime of these particles can be millions of years or billions of years depending on the sizes.”
WAS THERE EVIDENCE OF THE PHOEBE RING’S EXISTENCE BEFORE THIS?
One of the moons of Saturn, Iapetus, gave evidence of the existence of the ring before that structure was seen by astronomers. This satellite, covered in ice, is in a tidal lock with Saturn. Much like Earth’s moon, Iapetus always has a side which faces its home planet. As it orbits around the planet of Saturn, astronomers discovered the side that leads is covered in dark material, while the side that follows is completely white, which is understandable considering the ice. What this told researches is that the moon was traveling right through a large cloud of dust, which was collecting on the leading face.