Scientists Totally Surprised By Saturn Like Rings Found Around Asteroid

by Sid Perkins

Even before astronomers pointed their telescopes at a dim star over Chile last June, they knew it would darken for a few seconds as an asteroid passed in front of it. What they didn’t expect were two brief flickers a few seconds beforehand and afterward, suggesting that the asteroid was encircled by Saturn-like rings. The find is the first evidence for such rings around anything in our solar system other than a giant planet.

Like other teams positioned in a 1500-kilometer-wide swath across South America, the astronomers had started out the night with one mission: They intended to measure the size of Chariklo, an icy body that circles the sun between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. Knowing Chariklo’s speed across the sky, they could use the duration of the mini-eclipse to estimate the distant asteroid’s size, says Felipe Braga-Ribas, an astronomer at the National Observatory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“But then we saw the flickers,” he says. Because the team members weren’t looking for a ring, the discovery came as a complete surprise, he notes…

(read more: Science News/AAAS)

illustrations by Lucie Maquet

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