Little Asteroid with Rings

An artists representation of the asteroid Chariklo with its rings

An artists representation of the asteroid Chariklo with its rings

Somewhere between Saturn and Uranus there is an asteroid called Chariklo. With some recent investigations, scientists have discovered that Chariklo has rings. An asteroid with rings, that is what they discovered. Previously it was thought that only big planets like Saturn can have rings but it would seem that scientists were wrong. Study leader Felipe Braga-Ribas said: “We weren’t looking for a ring and didn’t think small bodies like Chariklo had them at all, so the discovery – and the amazing amount of detail we saw in the system – came as a complete surprise.”

The asteroid Chariklo is the first non-planetary object ever witnessed to have its own set of rings. Chariklo is encircled with two rings of space rock. The rings can also contain water ice. Researchers say that the most likely cause for the rings around Chariklo is some sort of collision that took place close to the asteroid and then scattered debris which could be picked up by the asteroid. Researchers also suspect that there is an undiscovered moon orbiting Chariklo and that this moon is responsible for keeping the rings in line.

An artists representation of the view you would get of the asteroid as observed from its rings

An artists representation of the view you would get of the asteroid as observed from its rings

The asteroid Chariklo has a diameter of 155 miles (250 kilometres) and is a lot smaller than the giant gas planets which are known to have rings. This shows researchers that size is not important to have or not have rings. It was on June 3rd 2013 that scientist were going to observe the asteroid as it passed in front of a distant star. This process is called an occultation. When the asteroid moves in front of the star it will block light from the star and scientist will be able to observe some detail about Chariklo. Only the detail that they observed was very unexpected. To the surprise of the scientists, they witnessed a dimming in the brightness of the light a few seconds before and after the main occultation. This would suggest that something is orbiting the asteroid. Luckily the whole event was recorded with 7 different telescopes. With great enthusiasm the scientists analyzed the data and it was then that they discovered that the asteroid Chariklo has its own rings.

The shape, size and orientation of the rings could be calculated. Chariklo has two rings. The inside ring closest to the planet is about 7 miles wide and the outside ring a little further out is about 2 miles wide. These rings would be greatly noticeable from the surface of Chariklo as they are only about 1/1000th of the distance between Earth and the Moon from the surface. Researchers say however that the outer ring might not be visible as it is likely blocked out by the inner ring. These rings are very similar to the rings of Saturn in the sense that they are very dense and bright and possibly formed by rocks and ice. To put the size of the Chariklo system into perspective, there is a gap between two of Saturn’s rings which is called the Cassini Division. The whole Chariklo system will fit into this gap twelve times. Just showing how amazing the discovery of this small non-planetary body with its rings is.

Scientist will now study the stability of Chariklo’s rings in the hope to gain a better understanding of the environment needed to form these rings. They also hope to learn something about the early stages of our solar system and its dynamics. Some scientist also hope that they can learn something about how galaxies form. This little asteroid then it seems can hold many explanations for the questions we ask.

 

Take a look at the video for more information

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