Saturn’s newest outer ring, discovered back in 2009, has finally been seen in full by scientist. It turns out that the ring is much bigger than anyone ever estimated and rarely seen by the human eye. In fact, it’s big enough that 7.000 different Saturns could fit inside it, making it the biggest in the solar system.
After fully mapping it, the researchers found that Saturn’s outer ring, dubbed the “Phoebe ring”, has a diameter that is roughly 270 times bigger than planet Saturn and more than ten (10) times bigger that Saturn’s E ring, known for being the second largest ring in our solar system. The scientific community is baffled as no one ever expected it to be quite this size.
The study, published earlier this week, on Wednesday (10 June, 2015), in the Journal Nature, informs that this is the first time in recorded history that researchers have the image of Saturn’s Phoebe ring in its entirety.
Douglas Hamilton, lead author and planetary scientist at the University of Maryland, gave a statement saying that “We know how big this ring is now and we didn’t before. 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”.
The Phoebe ring seems to start at 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from the planet to at least 9.9 million miles (16 million kilometers) from Saturn. However, there is a chance that it starts closer than that.
Hamilton went on to add that the simple fact that this ring can exist is a fascinating anomaly. Science textbooks tell experts that planetary rings are small in size and that they stay close to their planets. Typically when a space object is found far away from its parent planet it’s a moon rather a ring. The new discovery tears right through such theories and shows just what a surprising and interesting place the universe truly is.
Images provided by NASA’s WISE spacecraft have informed Hamilton and his team of researchers that the Phoebe ring is made almost entirely out of small dust particles, with only 10 percent (10%) consisting of larger rocks. Each of the small particles is roughly 10 microns in size, while the larger rocks are no bibber than 10 centimeters.
The lead author explains that he conducted theoretical models that showed how dust particles of varying sizes would move, which then allowed him to constructed artificial rings. He wonder what a ring would look like if it were made entirely out of large particles, what a ring would look like if it were made entirely out of small particle, and what a ring would look like if it were made out of a mix.
The test results ruled out the possibility of the ring being made entirely out of large particles, and showed that the small particles made up at least 90 percent (90%) of the light.
As the name would suggest, researchers believe that the material forming Saturn’s outer ring is in fact coming from Phoebe, one of Saturn’s distant moons.
The new findings have also allowed the team to confirm the long held belief that the Phoebe ring is the reason why Iapetus, another one of Saturn’s moons, is half dark and half bright.
Hamilton shared that since the particles are small, they drift inward at high speeds towards Iapetus and strike the black face of the moon, painting it. It is a process that is still happening today.