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Saturn’s Rings Are Much More Massive Than We Thought

A weird little mystery surrounding one of Saturn’s Moons has led to a massive discovery about Saturn’s rings.

Iapetus, one of Saturn’s moons, was a weird-looking fella. It was called the yin-yang moon because one side was black, and the other was white. Scientists had absolutely no idea how or why something like that could even happen on an orbiting Moon. Scientists were given something they can never resist: a mystery.

They turned the Spitzer Space Telescope to Saturn, and then analyzed their data with NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (or WISE, for short). The infrared scans turned up a massive ring around Saturn that we’ve never seen before. It extends over 7,000 times larger than Saturn itself.

The “Phoebe Ring”, as it’s called, it a ring of orbiting debris that’s entirely invisible to us on Earth. Over 90% of the material is smaller than a soccer ball. But infrared scanners were able to detect it.

Iapetus, the “Yin Yang” Moon. Image Credit: Nasa.gov

All that orbiting debris, or space dirt, has been pelting poor Iapetus for millions of years. The Moon doesn’t have two colors because of unique geology or anything cool like that…it’s just dirty.

The amazing thing about this is that scientists didn’t think rings could form that far out from a planet. They thought that when you get further out, the debris would clump together to form moons. But not with Saturn.

In other words, scientists had a really good idea about how rings and moons formed, and now Saturn has turned all their plans upside down.

In times like this, maybe we should consult Earth’s Phoebe, to get her opinion on our plans for Saturn going forward:

Godspeed, Phoebe. Godspeed.