NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered an enormous ring around Saturn - by far the largest of the giant planet's many rings.
The new belt lies at the far reaches of the Saturnian system, with an orbit tilted 27 degrees from the main ring plane. The bulk of its material starts about six million kilometers (3.7 million miles) away from the planet and extends outward roughly another 12 million kilometers (7.4 million miles). One of Saturn's farthest moons, Phoebe, circles within the newfound ring, and is likely the source of its material.
Saturn's newest halo is thick, too - its vertical height is about 20 times the diameter of the planet. It would take about one billion Earths stacked together to fill the ring.
"This is one supersized ring," said Anne Verbiscer, an astronomer at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. "If you could see the ring, it would span the width of two full moons' worth of sky, one on either side of Saturn."
The ring is made up of a thin array of ice and dust particles. Spitzer's infrared eyes were able to spot the glow of the band's cool dust. The telescope, launched in 2003, is currently 107 million kilometers (66 million miles) from Earth in orbit around the sun.
Verbiscer and her colleagues used Spitzer's longer-wavelength infrared camera, called the multiband imaging photometer, to scan through a patch of sky far from Saturn and a bit inside Phoebe's orbit. The astronomers had a hunch that Phoebe might be circling around in a belt of dust kicked up from its minor collisions with comets - a process similar to that around stars with dusty disks of planetary debris.
The ring would be difficult to see with visible-light telescopes. Its particles are diffuse and may even extend beyond the bulk of the ring material all the way in to Saturn and all the way out to interplanetary space. The relatively small numbers of particles in the ring wouldn't reflect much visible light, especially out at Saturn where sunlight is weak.
"The particles are so far apart that if you were to stand in the ring, you wouldn't even know it," said Verbiscer.