One (Planetary) Ring To Rule Them All
Astronomers have detected a planet with a ring system that is 200 times the size of Saturn’s rings, the first time an object such as this has ever been found outside our solar system.
Astronomy naturally lends itself to amazing pictures and artist’s interpretations of what’s out there in our amazing universe. Some images though are just so arresting that I immediately regret not being able to jump into my warp-drive spacecraft so I can see them for real.
This latest rendering clearly fits into that category.
It all started in 2012 with the discovery of an epically-sized gas giant called J1407b, 430 light years away. We should have known we had something special here when it was determined that it had the mass of 10 to perhaps 40 jupiters. This would put it into the mass-range of not just a gas giant but perhaps a brown dwarf which is a controversial object, kind of in-between a planet and a star. The scientist’s paper however makes no mention of a brown dwarf so I’m going to refer to it as a planet.
Things got really strange however when astronomers used what’s called the transit method for detecting planets around stars. The idea is that when a planet happens to cross in front of a star from our perspective, the light from the star drops in ways that reveals the planet’s existence to us. When J1407b crossed in front of its parent star, the decrease in light output wasn’t a quick dip followed by a relatively quick return to normalcy.The light output went through a series of dips and returns that took an amazing 3 weeks before it finally ended.
Researcher Matthew Kenworthy said about this:
“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…”
Clearly this object was incredibly large and consisted of a dense central region surrounded by a much larger outer region of greatly varying densities. The most reasonable conclusion had to be that there is a tremendous ring system around the gas giant with a huge surface area.
How huge? How’s 200 times larger than Saturn’s rings sound? That’s 120 million kilometers. Astronomers count as many as 30 concentric rings, some with a diameter in the tens of millions of kilometers. If this bugger was where Saturn is today, its rings would be visible to the naked eye at night and appear bigger than the full moon itself (somebody clearly needs to make an image of how this would look…come on somebody). If this planet replaced our sun at the center of our solar system, we’d see rings extending 7/9ths of the way to us (right before we all froze to death).
The mass of the rings themselves, though relatively diffuse, is still substantial. If you pulverized the entire earth and spread it around you could create similar rings (please don’t do this).
Rings are not the only thing that was found however. They also spotted clear gaps in the rings that were likely created by a moons that essentially absorbed everything in its path. Calculations show one of these to be fairly hefty with a mass range somewhere between mars and the earth itself. Being able to see the formation of exo-moons is an opportunity that has these astronomers drooling.
The future of the rings themselves doesn’t look bright however. They will very gradually thin out as more moons coalesce from them.
This will take quite some time so, fortunately, there’s no rush to invent my warp-drive ship.
Images Credit: Ron Miller–Kenworthy, MA & Mamajek, EE. arXiv