Scientists explore mystery of faraway star’s rings

January 29 07:48 2015

A team of scientists has been doing some detective work about the significance of large rings of particles and a sun-like star some 3 quadrillion miles away. These faraway rings are similar to those that go around the planet Saturn but are more numerous, 200 times bigger and much heavier. Over time, these huge particle rings are expected to form moons, and already have likely resulted in the creation of at least space

The process is similar to what happened in the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago when a collapsing cloud of gas and dust formed the sun and planets, with moons around them, said Eric Mamajek, a University of Rochester associate professor of physics and astronomy. A planet must have already formed in this faraway solar system in the making because rings can’t exist without the gravitational pull of a planet.

“This is a snapshot of the formation of moons,” Mamajek said. The team’s latest findings will be published in Astrophysical Journal An article about the work appeared in this week’s Time magazine. “The star which the new planet orbits is thought to be very young — about 16 million years, compared with our solar system’s 4.6 billion. If the scientists are right about what they’re seeing, the mammoth ring system will get smaller over time as the outer bands condense into moons,” Time says.

Mamajek considers this research to be a long-term — and long-distance — detective story that involves making informed speculation based on data from images gathered from 3 quadrillion miles away. The research team has included other Rochester faculty and researchers, working with several researchers abroad, including Matthew Kenworthy of the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands. The images of the sun-like star, named J1407, were part of the universe recorded by the SuperWASP project in 2007, using robotic telescopes in South Africa and the Canary Islands. Unlike other stars, J1407 was flickering during a 56-day period when typically 40 to 50 percent of the starlight was blocked — and the blockage reached as much as 95 percent one day.