Astronomers believe they have discovered an exoplanet with rings that span 200 times the distance of the Saturn’s. Although the hunt for exoplanets started in the early 1990s, only one other exoplanet with a ring system has been found.
By studying planetary systems in various stages of formation, astronomers can learn more about how different features like planetary ring systems evolve. In our own solar system, NASA’s Cassini mission,now in its final stage , will likely reveal more about Saturn’s rings.
Like many of the thousands of exoplanets discovered so far, this particular planet—called PDS 110—and its rings were revealed when scientists looked for periodic dips in starlight as a planet passes in front of its parent star.
Here’s Nola Taylor Read, reporting for Scientific American:
A few years ago, astronomers affiliated with the Wide-Angle Search for Planets (WASP) survey spotted an unusual feature in the shadowy haze around the star called PDS 110. For nearly two years the puzzling detection sat on the desk of WASP team member Hugh Osborn, a graduate student at the University of Warwick in England who first noticed it. “I wasn’t really sure what it could be,” Osborn says. Then, at a conference years later, another astronomer noted the same blip had appeared in data on PDS 110’s disk from a different survey and instrument, entirely independent Osborn’s original detection. At that point, “it became clear it was a bit more interesting than I originally thought,” he says. A paper detailing the research has been accepted for publication in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society .
Although a ring system seems to be the most likely explanation for this strange blip in the data, it could be due to clumps of debris surrounding the planet’s star. Osborn and his team are hoping to replicate the blip for the third time, when the planet crosses in front of its star again in September 2017, to confirm their supposition. Amateur astronomers can join in on the observation as well—a mid-sized backyard telescope should be able to detect the dip in starlight.