A massive ring system surrounds a giant planet in the star system J1407, as depicted in this artist's concept. The rings are hundreds of times wider than those of Saturn. A moon that's somewhere between the size of Earth and Mars appears to be embedded in the rings. Most of the ring system may disappear of the next few million years. [Ron Miller]
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Saturn at Opposition III
The planet Saturn is best known for its amazing rings. They span about two-thirds of the distance from Earth to the Moon, and seen from the right angle they can double Saturn’s brightness. If you have a telescope, you can see them yourself right now. Saturn is low in the southeast at nightfall, and looks like a bright golden star.
Yet Saturn’s rings are puny compared to those that encircle a planet in the constellation Centaurus. Those rings are hundreds of times wider than Saturn’s — wide enough to span the distance from Earth to the Sun.
The system is more than 400 light-years away. It’s known by a catalog number — J1407. A few years ago, automated telescopes recorded a series of eclipses of the star. Its light dimmed by up to 95 percent, sometimes in as little as a few hours.
Earlier this year, astronomers from the U.S. and England produced a detailed profile of what was going on. They found that the eclipses were caused by a giant planet with a giant ring system passing in front of the star. There are at least 37 rings. One big gap in the rings probably was cleared out by a moon that’s between the size of Mars and Earth.
The rings probably won’t last long, though. The star system is only about 16 million years old, so things are still taking shape. Over the next few million years, much of the ring material may coalesce to make more moons — depriving the young planet of its glorious rings.