Saturn's Supersized Ring
The new belt lies at the far reaches of the Saturnian system, with an orbit tilted 27 degrees from the main ring plane. The bulk of its material starts about 6 million kilometers (3.7 million miles) away from the planet and extends outward roughly another 12 million kilometers (7.4 million miles). One of Saturn’s farthest moons, Phoebe, circles within the newfound ring, and is likely the source of its material.
Saturn’s newest halo is thick, too -- its vertical height is about 20 times the diameter of the planet. It would take about one billion Earths stacked together to fill the ring.
“This is one supersized ring,” said Anne Verbiscer, an astronomer at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “If you could see the ring, it would span the width of two full moons’ worth of sky, one on either side of Saturn.” Verbiscer; Douglas Hamilton of the University of Maryland, College Park; and Michael Skrutskie, of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, are authors of a paper about the discovery published by the journal Nature.
The ring itself is tenuous, made up of a thin array of ice and dust particles. Spitzer’s infrared eyes were able to spot the glow of the band’s cool dust. The telescope, launched in 2003, is currently 107 million kilometers (66 million miles) from Earth in orbit around the sun.
Saturn’s newest addition could explain how Cassini Regio came to be. The ring is circling in the same direction as Phoebe, while Iapetus, the other rings and most of Saturn’s moons are all going the opposite way. According to the scientists, some of the dark and dusty material from the outer ring moves inward toward Iapetus, slamming the icy moon like bugs on a windshield.
“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.”
Studying the relationship between the moons of giant planets is important for astrobiologists who are trying to determine whether or not such systems could support moons with habitable environments. Some scientists believe that special circumstances might allow for life on some moons of Saturn or Jupiter - such as Enceladus or Europa - even though they're located at great distances from the sun.
“The particles are so far apart that if you were to stand in the ring, you wouldn’t even know it,” said Verbiscer.
Spitzer was able to sense the glow of the cool dust, which is only about 80 Kelvin (minus 316 degrees Fahrenheit). Cool objects shine with infrared, or thermal radiation; for example, even a cup of ice cream is blazing with infrared light. “By focusing on the glow of the ring’s cool dust, Spitzer made it easy to find,” said Verbiscer.
These observations were made before Spitzer ran out of coolant in May and began its “warm” mission.