Is Saturn the True Lord of the Rings?

Ava Wood, Staff Writer

Imagine, one dark night you look up at the pitch-black sky and see a tiny dot glowing brighter than all the other specks of light. Chances are that tiny dot is Saturn: the sixth planet away from the sun, renowned for its beautiful rings made up of billions of small chunks of ice and dust. Saturn has the biggest and brightest rings in our solar system, its only real competitors being those of  Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. Now, surely Saturn having the biggest rings in our solar system must mean it has the biggest in the whole universe, right? Well, not quite. There is another planet about 500 light years away from us—an exoplanet to be exact—that outclasses Saturn in ring diameter, mass, brightness, and splendor: J1407b.

Discovered in 2012 by a team led by Eric Mamajek, J1407b has left a lasting impression on astronomers and space nerds alike—myself included. Having always considered Saturn to be one of the most marvelous wonders of the universe, I was surprised to realize that such a planet existed! It was the first planet discovered since Saturn with such an astonishingly extravagant ring system, hence the excitement surrounding it. Its rings extend as far as 120 million kilometers—200 times larger than Saturns’—and the system contains around 30 rings! Even cooler, there are gaps between the rings, leaving space for exomoons to form.  J1407b differs from Saturn in that its rings are not made up of chunks of ice, and instead consist entirely of dust and rocks; probably because the planet is casually boiling at around 1000 to 2000 degrees Celsius. Not only is J1407b’s ring system massive, but the mass of the actual planet itself is about 20 times Saturn’s. The whole system is just incredible.

How could such a massive ring system even form? Scientists have many theories, but amongst them the most common—and in my opinion the most incredible—is that this planet is a star orbited by dust and rock that formed from collapsed clouds of dirt particles and gas. When a new celestial object forms this way, lots of debris is left over from the process that eventually settles down onto a plane and forms rings.  If proven true, this would be an amazing discovery because J1407b would be the very first observed evidence of a ring system being formed this way! However, scientists are not yet certain—there are countless possibilities surrounding this planet’s origins and how its existence came to be. For instance, this planet could have merely been a dwarf planet that acquired its rings over time via gravitational pull. However, the former theory is more likely due to how the diameter of J1407b’s rings far surpasses the restrictions of the Roche Limit, which is the minimum amount of distance that can exist between a satellite and its planet without tidal forces tearing apart the satellite’s internal gravity and creating a ring system. 

J1047b is an enigma, an incredibly fascinating entity that continues to astound researchers every day. This planet has permanently altered how scientists understand ring systems and continues to amaze observers through its pure size and brilliant splendor. Clearly a  new “Lord of the Rings” has truly emerged, knocking Saturn off its former pedestal of first place.