This Exoplanet’s Ring System Puts Saturn to Shame

By Carl Engelking | January 27, 2015 12:59 pm
An artist's rendering of J1407b passing in front of its parent star. (Credit: Ron Miller)

An artist’s rendering of J1407b passing in front of its parent star. (Credit: Ron Miller)

A newly discovered planet makes Saturn’s famed ring collection look downright tiny by comparison.

Astronomers from the Leiden Observatory in Netherlands and Rochester University in the United States discovered a planet encircled by a ring system more than 200 times the diameter of Saturn’s. With more than 30 rings, it’s the first system of its kind to be discovered outside our solar system, and it may be churning out more moons and protoplanets.

Rings Around the Gas Giant

SuperWASP is the United Kingdom’s top exoplanet detection program, and consists of two robotic observatories that operate year-round. Using data from the SuperWASP project, astronomers discovered an unusual series of eclipses that occurred in 2007 and obscured light from a Sun-like star called J1407. For 56 days light from J1407 faded in and out in a complex pattern, and at times more than 95 percent of the star’s light was blocked.

Astronomers concluded that a ring system must have caused J1407’s peculiar dimming. Here’s how the thinking goes: As a ring system passes in front of a star, it blocks light where dust and debris is thickest. More light passes through gaps in the rings, where orbiting moons or protoplanets forged paths through the debris field. The pattern they observed is thus similar to watching flickering sunlight through the windows of a moving train or bus.

Beefy Rings

We can’t actually observe the rings, but based on the light curve from SuperWASP data, astronomers estimate that the ring system is more than 74 million miles in diameter, which is roughly 200 times the diameter of Saturn’s ring system. The rings are also incredibly thick, as it takes quite a lot of material to block more than 95 percent of a Sun-like star’s light. Astronomers believe the system contains about an Earth’s mass in dust particles.

At the center of the rings is a giant planet, called J1407b, which is roughly 10 to 40 Jupiter masses and orbits its star once per decade. Researchers published their findings this week in the online journal arXiv.

If the rings around J1407b were put around Saturn, we could see them at dusk with our own eyes. Credit: M. Kenworthy/Leiden

If the rings around J1407b were put around Saturn, we could see them at dusk with our own eyes, as in this illustration. Credit: M. Kenworthy/Leiden

But Wait, There’s More

Astronomers believe J1407b’s ring system will become more transparent over the next several million years as moons and other satellites continue to form in the debris field. Both Jupiter and Saturn went through a similar development process, so observing J1407b is a bit like looking back in time.

Therefore, astronomers can further study J1407b to decipher the physical and chemical properties of satellite-spawning planetary disks before they settle down into stable, mature planets sporting a lot less bling and a lot more little offspring.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets
  • Bobareeno

    So…do astronomers estimate this system to be in its first or second trimester?

  • Steven

    “so observing J1407b is a bit like looking back in time.”

    …It IS looking back in time.

    • david

      Really? They clearly meant like looking at Jupiter or Saturn’s past since they “went through a similar development process”. Though you are so smart you need to let everyone know how you know that looking at light from a distant source is looking back in time. Looking at these words, you smart guy, is looking into the past as well, why don’t you point that out?

      • kamogediso mokongwa

        That’s well said, David!

      • VoodooGas

        At least Steven isn’t a d!ck about it.

        • david

          Don’t be so offended by what wasn’t directed at yourself. Have a nice day.

      • Guest

        David, you are correct by the context of the statement. Steven is also correct in that light takes time to travel, so when we observe celestial objects we are actually observing the past. For example, if we observe a star 1 light-year from Earth, we are actually seeing it as it was 1 year ago because the light takes 1 year to travel from the source to us. If that star were to blink out of existence today, we would still be observing it on Earth for another year until its last light finally reached us!

  • boonteetan

    If Saturn is that big with that gigantic rings, its view from earth would be awesome and fascinating. We are looking back in time, just wondering how many years ago.

  • HiddenWays

    “If the rings around J1407b were put around Saturn, we could see them at dusk with our own eyes”

    If this had been the case, I wonder what would have been the history of the development of religion in our part of this world – would it still have been solar, paternalistic, monotheistic, or would the need for a major goddess been too apparent?


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