New Planet Runs Rings Around Saturn

4 Feb

Move over, Saturn. It turns out you have a distant cousin – one that is much larger, much younger and carries a lot more “bling.”

Astronomers recently discovered what appears to be a young giant planet with breathtaking rings in a distant solar system more than 400 light years away from Earth. Their findings have just been accepted for publication in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal.

Saturn (pictured above) is known for its rings, but another planet more than 400 light years away is believed to have rings that are 200 times are large. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Saturn (pictured above) is known for its rings, but another planet more than 400 light years away is believed to have rings that are 200 times as large. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

The astronomers – the University of Rochester’s Eric Mamejek and the Leiden Observatory’s (The Netherlands) Matthew Kenworthy – say the three dozen or so rings span nearly 120 kilometers – roughly 200 times the size of Saturn’s.

The planet – referred to as J1407b – has a mass estimated at between 10 and 40 times that of Jupiter, which is the heaviest planet in our solar system.

The discovery has caught the attention of Elliott Horch, a noted astronomer and professor of physics at Southern.

“This is another signpost along the journey that is going on in astronomy right now in the area of exoplanets – planets that orbit other stars besides the Sun,” he says. “How diverse the menagerie of planets that we know about is becoming!

“Imagine being close to this planet and having its rings take up a big chunk of the sky,” he adds. “What a sight that would be!”

Indeed, astronomers say that if Saturn had rings of the magnitude of planet J1407b, they would be visible with the naked eye in our nighttime sky. In fact, the rings would appear larger than the moon, despite being much further away from Earth.

The findings indicate there are gaps between some of planet J1407b’s rings, leading to a theory that moons have been formed from the rings, just as it is believed that many of Saturn’s 60 or so moons were created this way. Astronomers believe Saturn’s rings were also much larger early in its own life, before some of the material from the rings left to form moons.

Astronomers say that while Saturn’s rings are composed of ice, J1407b has rings probably made of dust since the planet’s temperature is believed to be far too hot to have ice rings.

Saturn, which has been around for about 4.5 billion years, is an old timer compared with the relatively youthful J1407b – a planet for a mere 16 million years or so.

Hey Saturn, maybe you can take the newbie under your wing…er, ring.

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