NASA telescope discovers giant ring around Saturn

Saturn ring NASA

Credit: NASA

This is an artist rendering of the Saturn ring.


by Associated Press

Posted on October 7, 2009 at 11:52 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 7 at 4:22 PM

PASADENA, Calif. -- The thin array of ice and dust particles lies at the far reaches

of the Saturnian system and its orbit is tilted 27 degrees from the

planet's main ring plane, the laboratory said.

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.

Although the ring dust is very cold -- minus 316 degrees

Fahrenheit -- it shines with thermal radiation.

No one had looked at its location with an infrared instrument

until now, Clavin said.

The bulk of the ring material starts about 3.7 million miles

from the planet and extends outward about another 7.4 million


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

to fill it, JPL said.

Before the discovery Saturn was known to have seven main rings

named A through E and several faint unnamed rings.

A paper on the discovery was to be published online Wednesday by

the journal Nature.

"This is one supersized ring," said one of the authors, Anne

Verbiscer, an astronomer at the University of Virginia in

Charlottesville. Her co-authors are Douglas Hamilton of the

University of Maryland, College Park, and Michael Skrutskie, also

of the University of Virginia.

Saturn's moon Phoebe orbits within the ring and is believed to

be the source of the material.

The ring also may answer the riddle of another moon, Iapetus,

which has a bright side and a very dark side.

The ring circles in the same direction as Phoebe, while Iapetus,

the other rings and most of Saturn's other moons go the opposite

way. Scientists think material from the outer ring moves inward and

slams into Iapetus.

"Astronomers have long suspected that there is a connection

between Saturn's outer moon Phoebe and the dark material on

Iapetus," said Hamilton. "This new ring provides convincing

evidence of that relationship."

The Spitzer mission, launched in 2003, is managed by JPL in

Pasadena. Spitzer is 66 million miles from Earth in orbit around

the sun.