Uranus' almost invisible rings have a surprising glow in heat images

New images give us insights into the temperature of Uranus' rings and could lead to more discoveries.

A graduate student, Edward Molter, was taking heat view readings of Uranus when he was surprised to see the bright glow of its rings.

"I was just trying to image the planet as best I could and I saw the rings. It was amazing," graduate student Edward Molter told Phys.org.

Unlike Saturn, the rings of Uranus are only visible through the largest telescopes. They are so hard to see that they were only discovered in 1977. This new heat view helps us better understand the planet.

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Heat image findings

Unlike Saturn, the rings of Uranus are only visible the largest telescopes. They are so hard to see that they were only discovered in 1977.

Despite this, they show a surprising glow in the new heat images, making them more visible than they have been before. The images were taken by two large telescopes in the deserts of Chile — the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Uranus' almost invisible rings have a surprising glow in heat images

Composite image of Uranus’s atmosphere and rings at radio wavelengths 

Source: UC Berkeley image by Edward Molter and Imke de Pater

New ring temperature readings

These images allowed a team to measure the temperature of Uranus' rings for the very first time. They showed a cool 77 Kelvin, or 77 degrees above absolute zero. This is the boiling temperature of liquid nitrogen and the equivalent to 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

"Saturn's mainly icy rings are broad, bright and have a range of particle sizes, from micron-sized dust in the innermost D ring, to tens of meters in size in the main rings," UC Berkeley professor of astronomy Imke de Pater told Phys.org. "The small end is missing in the main rings of Uranus; the brightest ring, epsilon, is composed of golf ball-sized and larger rocks."

The rings could have been former asteroids that were taken in by the planet's gravity, moons that crashed into one another, or debris remaining from the time of formation some 4.5 billion years ago.

The new findings were published in this week's The Astronomical Journal.

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