In a surprise discovery, two rings have been found around the asteroid Chariklo, making it the first small Solar System body known to have rings.
Saturn is known for its magnificent rings and the other gas giants - Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune - have ring systems too, though not quite as impressive. Careful searches had not found any other ring systems within the Solar System and many astronomers were beginning to think that rings might only exist around large objects, until now.
An artist's impression of the newly discovered rings around Chariklo.
Source: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)
Chariklo is just 250km across and lies beyond Saturn, at a billion kilometres away. It is much too small and far away for the rings themselves to be seen, but amazing detail is now known about them. The rings are dense but narrow, just three and seven kilometres wide, and are separated by a clear gap of nine kilometres. If you were standing on the surface of Chariklo, the rings would appear as wide as our Full Moon and stretch from horizon to horizon.
The discovery was made possible because last June, Chariklo passed in front of an obscure star (UCAC4 248-108672). Not only did Chariklo block the star's light for 5 seconds, but two tiny dips in the starlight were seen, just before and after Chariklo moved by. This video from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) shows faint dimming caused by the rings, just before and after Chariklo blocks the star completely.
This event, known as an occultation, could only be seen from South America and an observing campaign was coordinated across seven observatories, including two telescopes operated by the ESO at La Silla, Chile. Having observations from all seven observatories, ruled out other possible explanations, except for a ring system.
What I really love is the data from the new high-resolution camera on ESO's 1.54m Danish telescope. (Anyone who has been to my Discover the Night Sky series knows that I am particularly fond of beautiful graphs!) This new camera was developed to search for exoplanets and can take up to 40 images per second. It was actually able to see the gap between the two rings – now that's beautiful science!
The data captured by ESO's 1.54m Danish telescope, showing Chariklo blocking out the light of the star (the main dip). On either side are two small, double dips, as the rings also passed in front of the star.
Image: F. Braga-Ribas et al.
Source: Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature (March, 2014)
The Planetarium's astronomer, Dr Tanya Hill, was recently appointed the Australian representative of the European Southern Observatory's Science Outreach Network.