Astronomers find vast ring system eclipsing a distant star

Astronomers find vast ring sys...
A massive ring system has been discovered orbiting eclipsing a distant star (Image: University of Rochester)
A massive ring system has been discovered orbiting eclipsing a distant star (Image: University of Rochester)
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A massive ring system has been discovered orbiting eclipsing a distant star (Image: University of Rochester)
A massive ring system has been discovered orbiting eclipsing a distant star (Image: University of Rochester)

Astronomers from the Leiden Observatory, Netherlands, and the University of Rochester, New York, have discovered a massive ring system obscuring the light of the young star J1407b. It is believed that the rings belong to a massive planet or possibly a brown dwarf, with an orbital period of roughly 10 years. The giant planet boasts a ring system around 200 times larger than that of Saturn, whose own rings were heavily depleted in the act of creating its many moons.

The distant solar system was originally discovered in 2012 by analyzing data from the UK's SuperWASP program, designed to detect gas giants as they move in front of their parent star. At the time, the team noted a number of unusual eclipses that hinted at the presence of a ring system, however the sheer enormity of that system has not been understood until now.

"The details that we see in the light curve are incredible," states Matthew Kenworthy, lead astronomer for the project at Leiden Observatory. "The eclipse lasted for several weeks, but you see rapid changes on time scales of tens of minutes as a result of fine structures in the rings. The star is much too far away to observe the rings directly, but we could make a detailed model based on the rapid brightness variations in the star light passing through the ring system. If we could replace Saturn’s rings with the rings around J1407b, they would be easily visible at night and be many times larger than the full moon."

In the most recent study, the astronomers made use of adaptive optics and Doppler spectroscopy to create an estimate of the mass of the planetary body and its impressive ring system.

This, combined with the light curve observed when the rings eclipsed the exoplanet's parent star, allowed the team to estimate that the system spanned an incredible 120 million km (74 million miles) in diameter, and contained the equivalent to the mass of Earth in dusty particles. The planet itself is believed to have a mass of 10 to 40 times that of Jupiter.

The materials present in the rings are ripe for the creation of exomoons, and team members believe that they have found at least one clear gap in the structure that would hint at the presence of a moon carving out the distinctive gap. By determining the size of the clear lane present in the ring, astronomers believe that the satellite body may have a mass ranging somewhere between that of Earth and Mars.

However the creation of new moons comes at a cost, and just as was the case with Saturn, the team believes that as the system births more exomoons, that the rings will diminish, and possibly even disappear over a time frame of the next several million years.

Source: University of Rochester

i think what's so mind boggling is that in geology, things generally CAN remain stable for many many years. depending on what subsystem of the geosphere you choose to look at. in planetary formation, we still don't really know how long things in what we assume are traditional rings systems can remain stable, how long does it take a jupiter to form from gas and dust into a stable orbiting body. how stable is the star itself? planetary science , in many ways, cannot even pretend to become a mature science until we get FAR better telescopes that allow us to see a data set of at least a few thousand planet known to be in the process of formation. right now, we haven't see even one. all we've see are planets themselves, which is still pretty awesome. the future of 'knowing more' can only be achieved with more sophisticated tools. and without better tools our science cannot move forward. all we will have is 'simulations'.
Kristianna Thomas
That is astonishing. The more we explore space; the more we realize how much we don't understand. The concepts that we hold so dear are so many preconceived notions that are all falling away by the wayside. Would life evolve on one of these Exomoons, or are there other earth like moons that may harbor life on it? So, we may have to search for life, not as we know it, but life as we don't know it.
Dawar Saify
Absolutely awe inspiring nature. Plus the work of the scientists to make deductions from their instrument infrastructure,and the future designs and implementation of new infrastructure which makes it possible for the rest of us to acquire this knowledge and make a picture in our minds about space.