Scientists Discover Dense Ring Around Dwarf Planet, But Can’t Quite Explain Why

New telescope data has revealed that a dwarf planet in the far reaches of the solar system is surrounded by a dense ring, leaving scientists and astronomers confused as to why.

European Space Agency scientists announced on Wednesday that data and observations of the planet Quaoar that were collected between 2018 and 2021 – from ground-based telescopes and the Cheops space telescope – led them to the discovery.

The ESA revealed that Quaoar was crossing in front of a succession of distant stars, blocking their light as it passed, in an event called an occultation. When the planet blocked this light, scientists were able to see its ring.

In general, occultations can be difficult to learn because the alignment of the planet, stars and telescope must be perfect, the ESA explained.

“When we put everything together, we saw dips in brightness that weren’t caused by Quaoar, but that indicated the presence of matter in a circular orbit around it,” said Bruno Morgado of the Universidade Federal do Rio. de Janeiro in a statement. “The moment we saw that, we said, ‘Okay, we see a ring around Quaoar. “”

Artist’s impression of Quaoar and his ring. / Credit: The European Space Agency

Quaoar is one of a collection of about 3,000 dwarf planets known as Trans-Neptunian Objects, which are beyond the orbit of the planet Neptune.

Scientists are now wondering why the dense material in Quaoar’s ring did not come together to form a small moon, as the ring itself is “at a distance of almost seven and a half times the radius of Quaoar “, said the ESA.

Although rare, Quaoar is not the only dwarf planet to have a ring. Two others, Chariklo and Haumea, were detected through ground observations, according to ESA. However, the placement of Quaoar’s ring makes it more interesting.

Dense ring systems typically exist within what is known as the Roche boundary of a planet, the ESA explained. The Roche limit, which exists around a planet or celestial body, is the point at which a celestial object would be broken into several pieces around it. For example, if Earth’s moon entered the planet’s Roche boundary, one would expect it to merge into several pieces – perhaps into a ring.

In the case of Quaoar, its dense ring is well beyond the Roche limit, leading scientists to wonder why it exists as a ring rather than a moon.

“As a result of our observations, the classical notion that dense rings only survive inside the Roche boundary of a planetary body needs to be completely revised,” said Giovanni Bruno of the Italian National Institute. of astrophysics.

One of the earliest hypotheses as to why Quaoar’s dense ring didn’t turn into a moon is due to freezing temperatures there, the ESA said. The cold could prevent the ice particles from sticking together.

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