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NASA Discovers Giant Ring Around Saturn 255

Posted by Soulskill
from the headlines-that-aren't-as-stupid-as-they-sound dept.
caffiend666 writes with news that scientists using the Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered a very large, previously unknown ring around the planet Saturn. According to NASA, if the ring were visible to the naked eye from Earth, it would cover a patch of sky roughly twice the angular diameter of the Moon. "The new belt lies at the far reaches of the Saturnian system, with an orbit tilted 27 degrees from the main ring plane. The bulk of its material starts about six million kilometers away from the planet and extends outward roughly another 12 million kilometers. One of Saturn's farthest moons, Phoebe, circles within the newfound ring, and is likely the source of its material. Saturn's newest halo is thick, too — its vertical height is about 20 times the diameter of the planet. It would take about one billion Earths stacked together to fill the ring. ... The ring itself is tenuous, made up of a thin array of ice and dust particles. Spitzer's infrared eyes were able to spot the glow of the band's cool dust. The telescope, launched in 2003, is currently 107 million kilometers from Earth in orbit around the sun."
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NASA Discovers Giant Ring Around Saturn

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  • by BeneathTheVeil (305107) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @10:54AM (#29669955) Homepage Journal

    ...it wasn't a giant ring around Uranus.

    Yeah, yeah, just thought I'd get that out of the way early.

  • by WCMI92 (592436) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @10:54AM (#29669959) Homepage

    Which was... "DUH!". Galileo discovered the "huge rings around Saturn". But reading deeper this is a fascinating find, that the invisible portion of the rings are way bigger than the spectacularly visible ones.

  • Missed by Voyager? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by IflyRC (956454) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:00AM (#29670049)
    I'm not sure I understand why something so large was missed by Voyager. I understand the difficulty of viewing something like this from Earth but those probes were right there.
    • by irussel (78667) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:11AM (#29670179)

      Did you even read the articles?

      quote:
      JPL spokeswoman Whitney Clavin said the ring is very diffuse and doesn't reflect much visible light but the infrared Spitzer telescope was able to detect it.

      "The particles are so far apart that if you were to stand in the ring, you wouldn't even know it," said Verbiscer.

      • by buchner.johannes (1139593) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:59AM (#29670847) Homepage Journal

        It is astonishing how little we know about the non-radiating matter in our own solar system. For example, the size of the Oort cloud is not really known.
        We can see active galactic nuclei up to z=6.4 or 5.4 Gpc, but don't know the objects within 0.04 parsecs of earth yet.
        The sphere is a beast.

    • by Tablizer (95088) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:15AM (#29670235) Homepage Journal

      It's a very faint ring, more like a thin cloud. Voyager was generally not designed to study something that thin, unless perhaps they knew specifically what to look for, such as a specific wavelength. Plus, when you are "in" it, it's hard to have something to compare to know that there's a difference. You cannot rule out instrument contamination or noise when it's almost equal in all directions.

    • by Rich0 (548339) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:22AM (#29670327) Homepage

      As others have pointed out, the issue was with luminosity, not being too small to see.

      In fact, these rings are SO big that being close probably makes them even harder to see.

      Consider that we know exactly what the shape of the Andromeda galaxy is, but we only have a general knowledge of the shape of our own galaxy. Or, consider that a person in a hedge maze might need an hour or two to accurately map it, but somebody flying overhead would just have to snap a photo.

      On the topic of Andromeda - that galaxy is actually similar to the size of the moon in the sky (maybe bigger). However, it is too dim to see with the naked eye (maybe just a splotch in a very dark sky). A simple camera can get a decent shot of it given a long enough exposure time.

      • Okay, I've got a decent camera. Assuming I can find a high enough viewpoint that's far away from light pollution on a clear sky, how could I get a photo of Andromeda in the night sky with my camera? And where on the net could I go to find information on how to locate it in the sky? Because that would be absolutely AMAZING to get a photo of Andromeda in the night sky.
        • By a planisphere and it will show you the location of various features, including Andromeda, in your location. If you try to take a picture with a stationary camera, then you are most likely to just get a streak, because the exposure time is enough that it will move a long way while the photo is being taken, so to get a good picture you will also want to set up something that will track a point in the sky as the Earth rotates. You won't get a good photograph without some magnification either, so your best
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Rich0 (548339)

          The other post had some good tips. Note that strictly speaking you don't need a tracking telescope. You can take a bunch of 10s exposures with a half-decent camera and then overlay them to get a better image. There is software out there that will do this semi-automatically (google for stacking), or you can just use Photoshop.

          Don't expect to get something like what you'd see out of the Hubble. In my light-polluted area (suburban), with a 50mm f/1.8 lens, I was able to get a small hazy disc with a central

      • Size of Andromeda (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Kelson (129150) * on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @12:41PM (#29671371) Homepage Journal

        NASA posted a great composite shot a few years ago showing the full moon and the Andromeda galaxy at the same angular scale.

        Astronomy Picture of the Day: Moon over Andromeda [nasa.gov].

  • by stressclq (881842) * on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:04AM (#29670091)

    Couldn't help myself, from TFA (emphasis added):

    Before the discovery Saturn was known to have seven main rings named A through E and several faint unnamed rings.

    What kind of a messed up numeral system do they use in NASA?

    Joking aside, the ring divisions are labelled (from the closest to furthest) : D, C, B, A then F, G and finally E as the outermost ring.

    Wonder what they will name this one, anyone good with sequence puzzles?

  • Cool Dust (Score:5, Funny)

    by Nerdfest (867930) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:05AM (#29670111)
    Cool Dust? Wow, I could have used some of that in high school. This is undoubtedly part of some astronomy group's secret project to get back at the jocks.
  • Infrared (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ichthus (72442)
    So, it sounds like it shows up in the infrared. But, it must be filtered by our atmosphere, or something -- otherwise we'd be able to see it from the ground.

    What a shame. It would be really cool to capture it [wired.com] with a DSLR.
  • Just now? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Tubal-Cain (1289912)

    NASA Discovers Giant Ring Around Saturn

    They figured it out just now?

    This proves it. The moon landings were fake.

  • Well (Score:2, Interesting)

    I don't know if you could consider this is part of the ring system around Saturn due to the fact that is start around 3.7 millions miles away from the planet and stretched out to its furthest at 7.4 millions miles; I'm not an astronomer by any means but I would consider this and asteroid belt of some sort; Saturn gravitation pulled cannot be that strong holding materials that far away.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      I don't know if you could consider this is part of the ring system around Saturn due to the fact that is start around 3.7 millions miles away from the planet and stretched out to its furthest at 7.4 millions miles; I'm not an astronomer by any means but I would consider this and asteroid belt of some sort; Saturn gravitation pulled cannot be that strong holding materials that far away.

      Gravitational pull by Saturn at a distance of 7.4 million miles: ~0.275 mm/s^2.

      Gravitational pull by Sol at the nearest po

  • Iapetus? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by pz (113803) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:12AM (#29670193) Journal

    Is this ring the source of the dark material on Iapetus?

    (Looking at the images of Iapetus, my instant reaction was that it looked exactly like objects that I've spray-painted at an oblique angle -- and by analogy the dark surface MUST be accreted material from a dust cloud.)

    • Re:Iapetus? (Score:5, Informative)

      by agentgonzo (1026204) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:53AM (#29670731)
      Yes. The BBC article [bbc.co.uk] states that this ring is the cause of the dark matter on Iapetus. Iapetus is tidally locked to Saturn, so will always present the same side to the direction of motion in its orbit. This side is the darker side of Iapetus and it seems to fit perfectly that this is due to collisions with the particles from this ring over the eons like bugs on a cosmic windscreen.
  • Yeah, but (Score:4, Interesting)

    by huckamania (533052) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:13AM (#29670217) Journal

    Now that the funny is out of the way...

    I would think that this kind of discovery could close the gap for some of the physics problems we are trying to solve. Could the headline have read 'Missing matter discovered around Saturn'? Supposedly we are missing 75% of the matter in the universe or some percentage.

    Ice in space? I wonder what we could do with that. Maybe Mars isn't so boring after all.

  • One ring to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them.

    I now pronounce you man and wife.

    • by MRe_nl (306212)

      Saturn has four main groups of rings and three fainter, narrower ring groups. These groups are separated by gaps called divisions. Close up views of Saturn's rings by the Voyager spacecrafts, which flew by them in 1980 and 1981, showed that these seven ring groups are made up of thousands of smaller rings. The exact number is not known.

      The main rings are extremely thin. They stretch 70,000 kilometres from their inner to outer edge, but are only about 100 metres thick. They are made of loose ice particles in

      • by kenp2002 (545495)

        bah nonsense.... 1 for the class ring, 1 for going steady, you have the engagement ring, the mother's ring, the wedding ring, and subsequent annaversaies. Hell you could be married to one person and still end up with 5 rings just starting out. Anyways we have no proof the Saturn has been divorced in the past and kept previous rings... in fact... Saturn could be "THE BLACK WIDOW!!!" Duh Dum Daa!!!

  • by Minwee (522556) <dcr@neverwhen.org> on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @11:28AM (#29670401) Homepage

    Although the ring dust is very cold -- minus 316 degrees Fahrenheit -- it shines with thermal radiation.

    That's -193'C or 80 K if you're an actual scientist.

    The bulk of the ring material starts about 3.7 million miles from the planet and extends outward about another 7.4 million miles.

    ...has an inner radius of 5.9 million kilometers and extends to 17 million km.

    >The newly found ring is so huge it would take 1 billion Earths to fill it

    That's "so huge it would take 1.03×10^29 Volkswagens to fill it"

    JPL said

    JPL is a collection of buildings in California and does not speak. Perhaps the Oracle of JPL made this prophecy?

    "This is one supersized ring," said one of the authors, Anne Verbiscer, an astronomer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

    Unless the McDonalds in Charlottesville have changed recently, 10^29 Volkswagens would be a 'Large'. If you want supersized rings it's going to be an extra 49 cents.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by PvtVoid (1252388)

      That's "so huge it would take 1.03×10^29 Volkswagens to fill it"

      How many libraries of Congress is that?

    • Hi,

      The quotes come from the Yahoo page. I know this is going to come as a shock to you, but this is not part of a peer reviewed research paper where only scientists are talking to scientists. Sometimes, speakers will target their language to the audience with which they are trying to communicate. Since the audience is likely going to be folks without a scientific background, the speaker will tailor his speech accordingly.

      So in this instance, a U.S. based audience will want to hear Fahrenheit. They will also

  • If these rings are so see through and spread out how can you measure where the boundaries of it are?
  • One of Saturn's farthest moons, Phoebe, circles within the newfound ring, and is likely the source of its material.

    Wouldn't the moon be accreted from the ring? Why would Phoebe be shedding material? My understanding was that many rocky bodies in the solar system are formed by accretions from rings such as this, and once a sufficiently large body is formed, the ring begins to disappear as it falls onto the body or is flung out of orbit by the gravitational influence of said body. Can someone say why the articles think the process is going in reverse?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by PvtVoid (1252388)

      Wouldn't the moon be accreted from the ring? Why would Phoebe be shedding material?

      Impacts [scientificamerican.com]. Stuff gets kicked up from Phoebe and accreted by Iapetus:

      The study's authors speculate that meteoric impacts on Phoebe's dark, heavily cratered surface liberate the particles that form the ring. That assertion might explain the anomalously two-toned surface of Iapetus, a Saturnian moon inside Phoebe's orbit. The smaller particles of the Phoebe-generated ring should migrate inward, where they would eventually be sw

  • This diffuse ring is likely the source of the "two-faced" Iapetus - the leading side of Iapetus is blackened [nasa.gov] by the ring much like a car windshield can be blackened by running into insects. The material is presumably coming from Phoebe, another moon of Saturn, probably from impacts on that body.

    I suspect that this is not the whole story, however. The particles in the ring are thought to be very small - but the dark splotches [nasa.gov] are hundreds of meters across. The ring may be braided (some of the others are), so

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