NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope made the startling discovery of a massive, sprawling new ring around Saturn – by far the planet’s largest. (via NASA)
The particles in the new ring occupy a vast region in space, with the ring starting 3.7 million miles away from the planet, and extending to 7.4 million miles. Even more astonishing: The depth of the new ring. The vertical height is 20 times the diameter of the planet itself.
This is wide, fat ring, circling our sixth planet. NASA says you would have to line up 300 Saturns in a row to match the ring’s diameter.
It’s a discovery that could change the way the popular planet is depicted, as well as appreciated, by Earthly star-gazers. But for scientists, far more important is that it helps to solve a mystery about the Saturn moon Iapetus. Featuring one bright side and one dark side, scientists have always been confused as to why this inner moon would look different from Phoebe, Saturn’s outermost satellite. But it turns out that Phoebe, and this newly discovered ring, are spinning one direction, while all of the other rings and moons are spinning the other direction.
So some particles from the new ring drift inward towards Iapetus and slam the surface, resulting in a dark spot.
UPDATE: Turns out this was actually first discovered back in October, but we hadn’t heard about it until Wednesday. We regret giving the impression that this was a “new” discovery. But we stand by the fact that it’s pretty darn cool.