It’s not the rarity of ring systems in general that surprises scientists, nor the fact that Quaoar has a ring despite its small size. What has scientists scratching their heads is the fact that the Quaoar ring system exists twice as far away as they previously thought. That’s a total of seven “planetary rays” across. The previous maximum width, which scientists call the Roche limit, is about three and a half planetary radii. Prior to the discovery of the Quaoar rings, it was believed that the tidal forces of the primary body would exceed the gravitational force holding the secondary body (the rings in this case) together. The rings would then disintegrate.
Professor Vik Dhillon from the University of Sheffield, co-author of the study, explained what the results could mean. He says: “It was unexpected to discover this new system of rings in our solar system, and it was doubly unexpected to find the rings so far from Quaoar, challenging our previous notions of how these rings form. Everyone discovers Saturn’s magnificent rings when they’re a kid, so hopefully this new discovery will provide some additional insight into how they came to be” (via Eurekalert).
We have known about planetary rings for centuries. Galileo spotted Saturn’s rings with a telescope in 1610. But if we know of their existence, we are still far from understanding them. Astronomers are constantly discovering new things and developing new theories, including one that could explain why Jupiter’s rings aren’t as visible as its neighbors.
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