A second planet may possess Saturn-like rings

Washington: In an interesting finding, researchers have detected features around minor planet Chiron that may signal rings, jets, or a shell of dust.

So far there were only five bodies in our solar system that are known to bear rings. After planet Saturn, to a lesser extent, rings of gas and dust also encircle Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.

The fifth member of this haloed group is Chariklo, one of a class of minor planets called centaurs: small, rocky bodies that possess qualities of both asteroids and comets.

Scientists only recently detected Chariklo’s ring system — a surprising finding as it had been thought that centaurs are relatively dormant.

“It’s interesting, because Chiron is a centaur — part of that middle section of the solar system, between Jupiter and Pluto, where we originally weren’t thinking things would be active, but it’s turning out things are quite active,” said Amanda Bosh, a lecturer in Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 2011, the group observed a stellar occultation in which Chiron passed in front of a bright star, briefly blocking its light.

Chiron, discovered in 1977, was the first planetary body categorized as a centaur, after the mythological Greek creature — a hybrid of man and beast.

Like their mythological counterparts, centaurs are hybrids, embodying traits of both asteroids and comets.

“There’s an aspect of serendipity to these observations,” Bosh said.

“We need a certain amount of luck, waiting for Chiron to pass in front of a star that is bright enough. Chiron itself is small enough that the event is very short; if you blink, you might miss it,” Bosh added.

The study appeared in the journal Icarus.