Observations at many sites in South America, including the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) La Silla Observatory, have made the surprise discovery that two dense and narrow rings surround the remote asteroid Chariklo. This is the smallest object by far found to have rings and only the fifth body in the solar system — after the much larger planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — to have this feature. The origin of these rings remains a mystery, but they may be the result of a collision that created a disk of debris.
The rings of Saturn are one of the most spectacular sights in the sky, and less prominent rings also have been found around the other giant planets. Despite many careful searches, no rings had been found around smaller objects orbiting the Sun in the solar system. Now observations of the distant minor planet Chariklo as it passed in front of a star have shown that this object too is surrounded by two fine rings.
“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!” said Felipe Braga-Ribas from Observatório Nacional/MCTI in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Chariklo is the largest member of a class known as centaurs, and it orbits between Saturn and Uranus in the outer solar system. Predictions had shown that it would pass in front of the star UCAC4 248-108672 on June 3, 2013, as seen from South America. Astronomers using telescopes at seven different locations, including the 1.54-meter Danish and TRAPPIST telescopes at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, were able to watch the star apparently vanish for a few seconds as its light was blocked by Chariklo — an occultation.
But they found much more than they were expecting. A few seconds before, and again a few seconds after the main occultation, there were two further very short dips in the star’s apparent brightness. Something around Chariklo was blocking the light. By comparing what was seen from different sites, the team could reconstruct not only the shape and size of the object itself but also the shape, width, orientation, and other properties of the newly discovered rings.
The team found that the ring system consists of two sharply confined rings only 4 and 2 miles (7 and 3 kilometers) wide, separated by a clear gap of 6 miles (9km), around a small 155 mile-diameter (250km) object orbiting beyond Saturn.
“For me, it was quite amazing to realize that we were able not only to detect a ring system, but also pinpoint that it consists of two clearly distinct rings,” said Uffe Gråe Jørgensen from Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. “I try to imagine how it would be to stand on the surface of this icy object — small enough that a fast sports car could reach escape velocity and drive off into space — and stare up at a 20-kilometer-wide [12 miles] ring system 1,000 times closer than the Moon.”
Although many questions remain unanswered, astronomers think that this sort of ring is likely to be formed from debris left over after a collision. It must be confined into the two narrow rings by the presence of small putative satellites.
“So, as well as the rings, it’s likely that Chariklo has at least one small moon still waiting to be discovered,” said Ribas.
The rings may prove to be a phenomenon that might in turn lead to the formation of a small moon. Such a sequence of events, on a much larger scale, may explain the birth of our own Moon in the early days of the solar system, as well as the origin of many other satellites around planets and asteroids.
The leaders of this project are provisionally calling the rings by the nicknames Oiapoque and Chu’, two rivers near the northern and southern extremes of Brazil.