Dwarf planet Haumea has its own ring system

Gwen Vasquez
October 13, 2017

A ring has been discovered around one of the dwarf planets that orbits the outer reaches of the solar system.

Haumea's ring was discovered by an worldwide team of astronomers operating on an ongoing program to designate Trans-Neptunian Objects or objects that are distant from the sun than Neptune.

Ultimately, the revelation may help scientists better understand why and how rings form. However, it also adds to the list of hidden threats for those who plan on space exploration missions.

The discoverer of six moons and three planetary rings-including the gossamer rings of Jupiter-Mark Showalter is now heading up the hazard planning team for New Horizon's next flyby target, a tiny object in the Kuiper belt known as MU69.

The group, led by José Luis Ortiz Moreno (J L Ortiz), a minor planet specialist at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Granada, presented its findings today in Nature. Scientifically, this is fascinating.

Associate Professor Jonti Horner from the University of Southern Queensland, commenting on the discovery, said rings may be more common than we thought. "We'll be doing a great deal of studying and preparation". Jose Ortiz of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Spain said that it is regrettable that even with the most enormous telescopes on Earth, or the Hubble Space Telescope, we can not see the details of Haumea, than a dot of light. The team hoped to learn more about the size and shape of the dwarf planet because the distance of that star from Haumea was so vast that its shadow appeared at regular size.

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Artist's concept of Haumea and its ring.

Though unexpected, it wasn't a huge surprise, Ortiz says. The collision also left behind a few small moons and a trail of debris. New evidence is consistent with the presence of a ring.

Aside from those instances, the Haumea ring is the first time we've detected this, so we're in some pretty unfamiliar territory - but the researchers hint we may be about to observe an wonderful trend in the characteristics of these faraway, mysterious minor planets. 10199 Chariklo, which is the largest of a class of objects called "centaurs" hiding out between Saturn and Uranus, has a ring, as does fellow centaur 2060 Chiron.

Ortiz's team has put together a YouTube visualisation of the rings, below. They also measured the planet's longest dimension at around 2322km, so around two Haumeas lined up lengthwise could fit inside the ring.

That rapid spin makes it the fastest-spinning large object known in our solar system. The discovery of Haumea's ring was reported in Journal Nature.

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