“Saturn on steroids” – that’s the description applied to a newly discovered extrasolar ringed planet that orbits a star like our own.
University of Rochester Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Eric Mamajek is leading a team of scientists who have located what is the first ringed system to transit a Sun-like star outside our own solar system. The planet was discovered as part of the international SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) and All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS) projects. Mamajek says:
“After we ruled out the eclipse being due to a spherical star or a circumstellar disk passing in front of the star, I realized that the only plausible explanation was some sort of dust ring system orbiting a smaller companion — basically a ‘Saturn on steroids’.”
Plenty of questions remain about the new planet, though one theory suggests the body at the center of the rings is a planet in the late stages of formation. Failing that, it could be a very low-mass star or a brown dwarf.
There’s also considerable interest about what lies between the rings of this new discovery. There are two colossal gaps between the rings, usually a sign that there is something there – be it a small moon or some other body – with enough mass to gravitationally shape the ring edges.
Mamajek and his team are now preparing to use southern hemisphere telescopes to establish the radial velocity of the star, and detect the gravitational tug and light of the companion.
It was only last month that astronomers found ‘Kepler 20-f,’ one of the most Earth-like planets discovered to date.