Astronomers have discovered an exoplanet with an enormous ring system. The ring system detected is of herculean proportions – around 200 times larger than the ring system of Saturn. Professor Eric Mamajek, of the University of Rochester, and his research team originally detected the rings in 2012.
The team stated that the exoplanet’s ring system is the first one that has been located outside the Solar System. The researchers stated that the moon-forming disk around the planet led to the creation of massive rings. The motivation behind the revelation of the rings was that the rings caused an eclipse for the exoplanet’s parent star, called J1407. The star is located 434 light-years from Earth in the Centaurus constellation.
The huge rings circle around what has been speculated as a very young giant planet, or a brown dwarf star. Astronomer at the Leiden Observatory, Matthew Kenworthy, led the analysis of the findings and compared them to “Super WASP”. Super WASP was a survey used to locate gas giant planets that orbit in front of their host star.
Nearly 30 planetary rings were found, each ring was tens of millions of kilometers in diameter. Researchers stated further that within the gaps between the rings there is a possibility of the formation of satellites, or moons. Astronomers said they have found one gap, in between the arrangement of the rings. Kenworthy explained that the rings cannot be directly observed, because they are located at such a far distance.
Even though researchers cannot perfectly observe the ring system, they have created a detailed computer model of them. To do this, the researchers analyzed data regarding brightness variations from the light from the star passing through the planet’s ring system. To make a fairly accurate estimate of the mass of the enormous exoplanet, Kenworthy and his team utilized Doppler spectroscopy and adaptive optics.
Adaptive optics is a technology used to improve conditions of optical systems by decreasing wave distortions. Telescopes have slightly deformed mirrors to counteract incoming infrared, X-ray, and gamma rays. Doppler spectroscopy, colloquially known as the “wobble effect”, is used to calculate the mass of a distant exoplanet. They measure the radical velocity of the planet around the host star, to see if the gravity from the planet breaks the host star from a completely straight axis spin.
They came to the conclusion that the other mass near star J1407 is most likely a huge, unseen planet. Astronomers stated that even though these rings are very large, they will become thin and erode over a couple million years.
The aforementioned planet is young, very young. Astronomers believe it is only 16 million years old. They believe they will be observing the stage transition of the rings, which would allow to them to see how Saturn’s rings would have formed.
Ultimately, they will disappear as satellites are created from the rock and ice found in the rings. Therefore, the rings around the exoplanet will most likely look like Saturn’s, along with a plethora of moons, within the next few million years.
By Alex Lemieux
Picture: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center – Flickr License