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Astrophysicists Ring In the New Year With Discovery of an Exo-Saturn

Updated on January 17, 2012
Artist's conception of the ringed companion to 1SWASP J140747.93-394542.6.
Artist's conception of the ringed companion to 1SWASP J140747.93-394542.6. | Source
"Normal" symmetrical light curves captured by the Kepler probe
"Normal" symmetrical light curves captured by the Kepler probe | Source

Poll Time!

Fill in the blank. The discovery of a ringed planet orbiting 1SWASP J140747.93-394542.6 is ______.

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So far, 2012 has been a great year for extrasolar planets, also known as exoplanets. In just the past two weeks, astrophysicists from NASA's Kepler mission have announced the discovery of the smallest exoplanet system to date and the discovery of two more dual-sun planet systems. Additionally, an international team of astronomers searching for planets using a microlensing technique has concluded that planets may outnumber stars in our galaxy.

However, a recent discovery by an international team of astronomers led by Eric E. Mamajek, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, is trumping all of these prior discoveries in sheer, unadulterated awesome.

This team has discovered what may be the first ringed planet orbiting another star.

One Ringed Exoplanet To Rule Them All

Located 420 light years away in the constellation Centaurus, 1SWASP J140747.93-394542.6 (J1407, for short) is a K5-type star sightly cooler and smaller than our Sun. It is also a very young star, estimated to be around 16 million years old.

The scientists were studying the light curves of young stars in a nearby star-forming region known as the Scorpius-Centaurus association, looking for dips in the light that would indicate an object passing in front of the star from our perspective. This is the same technique used by the NASA Kepler mission to observe transiting exoplanets.

The light curve the Rochester team found when analyzing the data from J1407 was highly unusual. Unlike the symmetrical U-shaped curves usually found when a planet candidate eclipses a star, this was an asymmetrical curve bracketed at the beginning and end with intermittent dimming periods. At the deepest point in the curve, some 95% of J1407's light was being obscured by the transiting object.

If You Accreted It, Then You Should Have Put a Ring On It

After ruling out the possibility that this unusual curve was caused by protoplanetary disk or other objects, the researchers concluded that this was most likely a young, low-mass planet with a giant ring system. Described by lead author Mamajek as "Saturn on steroids," J1407's ringed companion is estimated to have an orbital period of at least 850 days and is located more than 1.7 Astronomical Units from the star, 1 AU being the average distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Follow-up observations using the radial velocity, or wobble, method will be able to better determine the planet's mass and orbital period. Further study of this object may also provide some more general answers about the formation of planet and moon systems around infant stars.

If the first two weeks of 2012 are any indication, we're in for an amazing year of extrasolar finds.


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    • unvrso profile image

      Jose Juan Gutierrez 5 years ago from Mexico City

      To date, astronomers have found more than 700 exoplanets orbiting their stars, and it is expected that in the near future and with the advances in technology, in addition to the fact that the universe is so vast, astronomers will keep finding exoplanets in other galaxies, including the Milky Way.

    • Apostacy profile image

      Apostacy 6 years ago from Near Toronto

      Agreed. Especially with the new discoveries being made at CERN. I am grateful to be in this age of information, I can't imagine what kind of personality I would have had pre-evolutionary theory or pre-general relativity. Jeez, Pre-telescope.. Nothing but the greeks logic and mathematics to entertain me.

    • scottcgruber profile image

      scottcgruber 6 years ago from USA

      True - so far Sol is above average... Though if exoplanet hunting over the last 15 years has taught us anything, it's to not make any assumptions about what a typical system should be. Astronomers are constantly finding systems that just don't fit the old models of planet formation. It's a very good time to be alive and watching the discoveries unfold...

    • Apostacy profile image

      Apostacy 6 years ago from Near Toronto

      "Planets may outnumber stars in our galaxy." This is a fascenating idea to think about.. and the implications it has for the rest of the universe as well. Perhaps we should have assumed this anyways, considering the only close-up and compeltely observable star we have has an 1/8 planet ratio lol. That was a joke, this was a great read.

    • scottcgruber profile image

      scottcgruber 6 years ago from USA

      I hardly think astronomy and space exploration is a zero-sum game. It is possible for some people to look for exoplanets and others to build rockets and others to operate Mars rovers and others to colonize the Moon or whatever.

      And we have been back to the Moon many times in the past 40 years - Explorer 49, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, LCROSS, Artemis A & B, Grail A & B, and plenty of Russian, Indian, Japanese, and European probes. Sending humans is very expensive and not very productive for science.

      Not sure what you mean by the fuzzy pictures from Mars - we've gotten very sharp, detailed pictures from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and the current Mars orbiters. The live video from the Moon, on the other hand, was pretty fuzzy. The detailed video and photos are from the cameras the astronauts brought back with them.

    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 6 years ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Shouldn't we concentrate more on colonizing the closest planetary bodies in our solar system such as the Moon or Mars?

      Could you explain to the slow witted nutards such as myself why we haven't been back to the Moon after setting foot on it 40 years ago.

      Could you explain why all we get is fuzzy pictures of the Martian landscape and yet we got awesome, detailed TV video of us landing on the Moon?

      Type real slow for those of us incapable of understanding big words and technical jargon . . .