Saturn is one of the most stunning sights of our solar system due to the existence of its gigantic ring system. Saturn’s major rings stretch over a distance of 175,000 miles (282,000 kilometers), making them the largest ring system in the solar system. However, Saturn’s rings are tiny when compared to a distant exoplanet nicknamed “Super Saturn.”
Around 420-light years away is a planet orbiting a sun-like star. Designated as J1407b, it has a mass 20 times greater than that of Saturn. The exoplanet was discovered using the transit method, which looks for any changes in a star’s light caused by a planet passing in front of the star. While observing J1407b, scientists noticed that there were slight changes to the amount of starlight just prior to the planet passing in front of the star and after it transited the star. This suggests that J1407b is surrounded by a gigantic system of rings. By knowing the amount of time starlight is being blocked for, scientists were able to estimate the size of this ring system, and the numbers are truly mind-boggling. J1407b is orbited by a ring system 111-million miles (180-million kilometres) across. That’s around 18-million miles larger than the distance between the Earth and sun, and over 600 times larger than Saturn’s major rings.
A Young Planet
How exactly can a planet possess such a gigantic ring system? Interestingly, scientists believe that all of the gas giants in our solar system may have had ring systems comparable to that of J1407b. Ring systems form along with the gas giants, and when the planets were young, their rings were much larger than they are today. Over time, material within the rings gradually coalesces to form a vast system of moons. Over time, the rings gradually shrink and eventually disappear entirely. In our solar system, all of the gas giants have ring systems, yet most of them have become so small that they can only be seen up-close, with the obvious exception of Saturn. Rings are only a temporary thing, and eventually they disappear. In the case of J1407b, the planet is still young, and astronomers believe that its gigantic ring system will likely be more comparable to Saturn’s in a few million years.