Have you ever seen Saturn? If yes, it was probably in a textbook, how boring; or ultimately, if you’ve ever seen it through a telescope, then you know for sure that it’s beautiful — the fact that it has rings. Fun fact: Its not only Saturn that’s having this astronomical wonder — Uranus and Neptune, too, have rings, but to a lesser degree as compared. Here’s the kicker: Astronomers might have just discovered that its not only planets that enjoy playing hula-hoops, but also asteroids. Yes, those chunks of space debris, too.
Related media: This is the First-Known Asteroid With Rings
We know for sure that Saturn has these incredible rings surrounding it, so you can imagine that look on scientists face when they discovered that asteroids too having rings; but it turns out the physics of these rings — the big rings and the small rings — are totally different. But here’s the first thing to understand about planetary rings: we’re still learning a lot about where they came from, and how they behave. In general, planetary rings are just tightly orbiting clouds of ice chunks, rock, and space debris.
In 2017, scientists had the opportunity to dive into Saturn’s rings when the Cassini mission got ever close to it’s end. So engineers, daring enough, gave the spacecraft one last risky mission to look at these chunks of rock and ice. The Cassini satellite discovered a numerous amount of rings on Saturn alone just to list, but here’s a couple of them that you can take a look at to see just how wild they are.
Ring Up Not Ring Up
Saturn’s rings are made up of debris of all sizes, from particles as small as a grain of sand to boulders as large as a whole mountain. For now, we can’t say with certainty what these rings are — that’s how old they are, or whether they’re the broken remnants of a moon, or a bunch of debris that coalesced with Saturn’s immense gravity.
The rings on Saturn are named according to their discovery in an alphabetical order — A-ring, B-ring, C-ring, in that order — including the brightest known as the E-ring which is probably having a strange source, the moon Enceladus. Enceladus is covered in cryovolcanoes — volcanoes that erupts ice and water — which provides a lot of the bright material observed in the E-ring. And, of course, as we mentioned earlier, Saturn isn’t the only planet with rings — gas giants like Uranus, Neptune, and even Jupiter, have rings too.
Put A Ring On It
But here’s a surprise: Asteroids have rings too. In 2014, astronomers were stunned when the first set of rings were discovered around an asteroid named Chariklo; and again in 2017, astronomers also discovered yet again a circle of debris surrounding a dwarf planet called Haumea. In a 2018 paper published on Nature Astronomy by led astronomer Bruno Sicardy of the Observatoire de Paris, explains how these little bodies can hold on to their rings in the absence of shepherding moons, which help hold the rings together at planets. The scientists have a couple of explanations.
“In the case of Chariklo, the irregularities confine the rings. In the case of Haumea, the body’s big flatness does the job,” said Maryame El Moutamid, research associate at the Cornell University’s Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, and co-author of the paper, in a statement.
Chariklo is a small, rocky asteroid between Saturn and Uranus. It’s about 303 kilometers (188 miles) in diameter, and takes roughly 63 years to orbit the Sun. And according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), it’s the largest object in an asteroid class known as Centaurs. Meanwhile, Haumea is a trans-Neptunian object about the size of Pluto 620 kilometers (385 miles) in diameter; and it’s pretty much oblate — like a flattened ball. It’s found in the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond the orbit of Neptune. It was originally discovered in December 2004, and takes roughly 285 years to orbit the Sun.
“In the case of small bodies Chariklo and Haumea, gravity shepherds the rings. The rings are confined by the gravity because of the shape irregularity of their bodies,” says El Moutamid, who is also a member of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute.
It seems space is still full of surprises.
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Wed, Mar 06, 2019.