The Phoebe ring

Fascinated as I am by all things astronomical, today’s news of the discovery of a new ring of Saturn piqued my interest.

I know what you’re thinking: Saturn’s got a bunch of rings already. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that the Phoebe ring, as the newly identified phenomenon is being called, is not another of the familiar rings that encircle the equator of the sixth planet from the sun like a series of enormous belts. For one thing, the Phoebe ring is beyond huge — its inner edge begins at about 128 times the radius of Saturn. The ring itself is about 20 times as thick as Saturn’s diameter. So it’s less like a belt than like a cosmic inner tube, with an antlike Saturn at its hub.

To put it another way, more than one billion Earths could fit inside the Phoebe ring.

Is that big enough for you?

Astronomers have been searching for something in the vicinity of the Phoebe ring since the 1970s, when Cornell University’s Joseph A. Burns first suggested the object as an explanation for the unusual properties of Saturn’s moon Iapetus. It’s taken this long to find the mystery ring because, although the Phoebe ring is ginormous, it’s nearly invisible. Scientists used NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope — a orbiting satellite that “sees” in infrared (and apparently, no relation) — to pinpoint what Dr. Burns first postulated three decades ago.

The fun part of the news for me was hearing Andrew Fraknoi on the radio tonight, chatting with the anchors on KCBS about the discovery. Andy is the head astronomy professor at Foothill College, and for many years was the chairman of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Whenever there’s an astronomy event in the news, Andy’s usually the guy to whom the Bay Area media reaches out for an explanation. About 25 years ago, I took Andy’s introductory astronomy class at San Francisco State, to fulfill a natural science requirement. I don’t recall the grade I received, but I remember that it was an interesting course.

I’m still waiting, though, to learn why such a significant scientific discovery was named after Lisa Kudrow’s character on Friends.

Explore posts in the same categories: Ripped From the Headlines, That's Cool!, Weird Science

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