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Pluto's neighbour, the exotic Haumea has a ring around it
12 October 2017, 09:16 | Anna Jefferson
Artist's impression. Credit IAA-CSIC UHU
Whilst rings are well known around Saturn as well as Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus, this novel discovery depicts the third time, especially in the last few years that the scientists have explored and found a ring around a solar system item that is not a planet.
A thin band of debris circles the dwarf planetHaumea in an illustration based on the latest discovery.
This handout photo released by Nature shows an artistic view of Haumea and its ring system with correct proportions for the main body and the ring.
The planet, dubbed Haumea, orbits the Sun far beyond Neptune - the eighth and furthest recognised "full" planet in our star system since Pluto was downgraded to dwarf status in 2006.
As a bonus, just before and just after Haumea blotted out the star, the telescopes also saw the starlight slightly fade out again: a signature for the presence of a ring.
In fact, all of its strangeness might be linked with Haumea and its two moons - Hi'aka and Namaka - potentially originating from a larger Haumea that was struck by something in the Kuiper Belt. This dwarf planet takes only four hours to make one spin.
But Haumea's recent story goes even deeper than that; its discovery a decade ago was rooted in controversy. Ultimately, the International Astronomical Union made a decision to give the dwarf planet the name coined by Mike Brown, Haumea, instead of the name given by Ortiz.
Ortiz's team has put together a YouTube visualisation of the rings, below. It wasn't until 2008 that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially classified it as the fifth dwarf planet, gave it the name Haumea - a suggestion that came from the U.S. team - and left the name of its discoverer blank.
Part of what Ortiz and his colleagues found might throw a spanner in the works for Haumea's classification as a dwarf planet, though. They got 10 Earth-based observatories ready, and on that night all pointed their telescopes towards the same patch of sky to learn as much as they could. "The authors' results suggest that Haumea might not be in hydrostatic equilibrium, and this touches on the still-sensitive topic of how planets and dwarf planets should be defined", writes Amanda Sickafoose, an astronomer at MIT, in an accompanying article also published in Nature today. But just know that plenty of objects in our Solar System get much stranger when scientists look more closely.
As for whether the finding at Haumea means MU69 could have New Horizons-smashing rings of its own, Ortiz says he doubts it.
The presumption that only larger planets like Saturn can host rings has been busted.
The number of ringed solar objects seems to be increasing in the outer realm of the solar system.
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