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Artist's rendering of Saturn with recently discovered ring An artist's illustration of the newly discovered ring around Saturn. Saturn looks like a small dot inside the band. (Photo: NASA)

Supersized Ring Circles Saturn

Scientists discover new and largest ring around the sixth planet from the sun

By Laura Linn | October 26 , 2009

Scientists recently discovered a mammoth ring around the planet Saturn. It is so large that 1 billion Earths would be needed to fill it!

So why hasn’t this colossal ring been seen before? The ring is made up of ice and dust particles that do not reflect much light and are very spread out.

“The particles are so far apart that if you were to stand in the ring, you wouldn’t even know it,” said Anne Verbiscer, of the University of Virginia, one of the astronomers who discovered the ring.

Finding the Eighth Ring

For years, Saturn has been known to have seven main rings. Thanks to the Spitzer telescope, astronomers now know that a massive eighth ring exists. The telescope, launched in 2003 by the U.S. space agency NASA, is currently orbiting the sun.

The Spitzer telescope, which is the size of a car, helps scientists see space differently than with regular telescopes. Most telescopes magnify distant objects, while the Spitzer telescope detects objects in space based on their temperature. Verbiscer said that detecting Saturn’s super ring, at a temperature of minus 316°F, was easy for the Spitzer telescope.

Biggest Known Ring

Saturn’s newly found ring looks like a flat band and is about 7.4 million miles in width. The ring is not only wide but thick—its vertical height is about 20 times that of the planet Saturn. It is the biggest known ring in our solar system.

"This is one supersized ring," said Verbiscer.

Saturn's moon Phoebe orbits within the ring and is believed to be the source of the ring’s material. Astronomers think the dust and ice that make up the ring have broken off Phoebe as a result of space rocks and comets hitting it.

Moon Mystery Solved

The ring may also solve the mystery of another of Saturn’s moon, Iapetus [eye-AP-uh-tuhss], which has two different looking sides. The side facing Saturn appears light in color, while the other side is very dark. Scientists have wondered why this is the case since Iapetus was first discovered in 1671.

Iapetus circles Saturn in the opposite direction from the ring. Scientists think the material from the ring collides with Iapetus and gathers on one side of it like a thick coating of dust, making the side with the coating appear dark in color.

”Astronomers have long suspected that there is a connection between Saturn's outer moon Phoebe and the dark material on Iapetus,” said Douglas Hamilton of the University of Maryland. “This new ring provides convincing evidence of that relationship.”

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