Is Massive Ring System Discovery Of A ‘Super Saturn’?

A massive ring system observed around the exoplanet J1407b is much larger and heavier than Saturn’s according to astronomists in the Netherlands. According to Wikipedia, an exoplanet, or extrasolar planet, is a planet that orbits a star outside the solar system. J1407b refers to the exoplanet while J1407, without the b, refers to the dwarf star.

In 2012, astronomers in the Netherlands first discovered a massive ring system circling an orange dwarf star named J1407, which is about 116 light-years away. According to the Washington Post, scientists saw signs of a “strange” eclipse where it alternated between dimming and brightening suddenly for two months.

Gathering and studying data took several weeks due to the size of the massive ring system with the results published in Astrophysics Journal. The scientists observed how the rings eclipsed light from the star J1407. The ring system was found to be massive with more than thirty rings in the system. Each ring is tens of millions of kilometers in diameter, almost an unfathomable distance especially in comparison to our solar system.

Matthew Kenworth of Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands, and lead author of the study, shed some light on their findings.

“The details that we see in the light curve are incredible. The eclipse lasted for several weeks, but you see rapid changes on time scales of tens of minutes as a result of fine structures in the rings. The star is much too far away to observe the rings directly, but we could make a detailed model based on the rapid brightness variations in the star light passing through the ring system. If we could replace Saturn’s rings with the rings around J1407b, they would be easily visible at night and be many times larger than the full moon.”

Co-author Eric Mamajek, of the University of Rochester, New York, explained J1407b’s ring system is 200 times larger than Saturn’s, which would be around 120 million kilometers (75 million miles) wide. He estimates the material inside the rings is close to 1-Earth mass-worth.

“You could think of it as kind of a super Saturn,” Mamajek said.

Until this massive ring system was discovered, astronomers had been looking for a ring system beyond our solar system. According to Universe Today, gaps and densities of the rings could mean there is at least one large exomoon with possibly more forming. An exomoon is a moon which orbits planets outside the solar system.

This massive ring system reportedly has many astronomers excited because it’s the first found outside of our solar system. What kind of influence do you think these massive ring system findings will spark in astronomy?

[Image via Ron Miller]