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Rings of Uranus

March 8, 2012

Serendipity may sound like the name of a ’50s doo-wop band, but it’s actually one of the most important words in science. It basically means making a lucky discovery because you’re at the right place at the right time.

35 years ago this week, for example, a team of astronomers was planning to study the atmosphere of Uranus by watching a star disappear behind the planet. The experiment worked as planned. But the astronomers also made a serendipitous discovery: They found that rings orbit the giant planet.

The star’s disappearance behind Uranus was going to be visible from only a small region of Earth, most of which was over water in the southern hemisphere. So the astronomers had to be in just the right place at just the right time -- aboard an airborne observatory flying over the Indian Ocean on March 10th, 1977.

From their high-flying outpost, the star “blinked out” several times before and after it passed behind Uranus -- each blink the result of an eclipse by the rings.

The initial discovery showed five rings. Several others have been discovered since then, bringing the total to more than a dozen. All of the rings are quite dark, and most of them are narrow bands of rock and ice that have been darkened by radiation. The only wide rings are made of fine and thinly spread grains of dust. So from Uranus’s distance of close to two billion miles, the rings had stayed hidden -- until a serendipitous discovery 35 years ago.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012


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