Apr 11, 2006
Blue Rings Pose New Mystery
A newly discovered blue ring
around the gas giant Uranus compares extremely well with the blue ring
of Saturn, but astronomers lack a credible theory that can explain both.
It is now known that rings are the rule among the gas giants—Jupiter,
Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—and the ring systems are dominated by a
reddish hue. The color is apparently related to both particle size and
composition. Relatively large particle sizes—many microns to meters
across—are more abundant in the reddish rings, and this fact is at least
partially responsible for the rings’ color. But it is also believed that
some of the material of the rings themselves may be of a reddish
hue—“perhaps from iron”.
There are two exceptions, however. Last year astronomers discovered that
the outermost ring of Uranus is bright blue, and the color reminded them
of the E-ring of Saturn, which displays a virtually identical hue. The
discovery of the blue ring came after combining ground-based
near-infrared observations by the Keck Telescope in Hawaii and
visible-light photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
According to a UC Berkeley press release reporting on the work of four
astronomers (recently reported in the journal Science), “The similarity
between these outer rings implies a similar explanation for the blue
color”. But this poses a problem because Saturn's blue E ring is now
explained by the presence of the small moon Enceladus. In the past year,
astronomers observed bright plumes of dust, gas, and
ice particles from Enceladus, feeding
the E-ring. Though they had long assumed that Enceladus, just 300 miles
in diameter, was cold and dead, they were forced to the conclusion that
some mysterious internal process was still alive in the moon, energizing
Curiously, a small moon of Uranus, called Mab, occupies a remarkably
similar strategic position in relation to that gas giant’s blue ring.
But a “similar explanation” to that of the blue ring of Saturn is
inconceivable under the astronomers’ assumptions, since the proposed
internal dynamics on Enceladus had already strained credibility, and Mab
is just “a small, dead, rocky ball, about 15 miles across—one-twentieth
the diameter of Enceladus”.
Nevertheless, as noted by one of the authors, "Arguing by analogy, the
two outermost rings, the two rings that have satellites embedded in
them, are both the blue rings. That can't be coincidental, there has to
be a common thread of dynamics that is causing both of these phenomena”.
Scientists agree that the reason for the blue hue of the two rings is
the presence of smaller particles, “most less than a tenth of a micron
across—a thousandth the width of a human hair— that scatter and reflect
predominantly blue light”.
From an electrical vantage point, then, a unified explanation is
immediately available. As we have already noted in discussion of comets,
an electric process, called
sputtering” in industrial applications, produces the most finely
divided particles that can be technically achieved today. The process is
active on comet nuclei, producing the “astonishingly” fine dust observed
in more than one encounter with a comet. In fact, the blue color in the
ion tails of comets should be compared with the blue rings of Saturn and
Now that the Cassini probe of Saturn’s realm has revealed the comet-like
plumes of Enceladus—most economically explained as electrical jets—it is
not unreasonable to suppose that these jets are feeding the same kind of
exceptionally fine dust into Saturn’s blue ring. While the small size of
the Uranian moon Mab positively excludes internal processes, all of the
facts are consistent with electrical activity similar to that observed
on Enceladus. Hence, a similar result is to be expected.
It should not be forgotten that we see the same process on Jupiter’s
moon Io, which is known to
eject material into the Jovian plasma torus. But in this case, the
result is different because the discharge is so energetic that the
surface material is not merely being 'machined' but is undergoing
nuclear transformation. Predominantly, the oxygen nuclei from water ice
combine to become sulfur. And it is the fallback of colorful sulfur
molecules that creates the unique 'pizza' look of Io.
The jets from these very different moons are not due to some speculative
internally driven process. These three moons (together with Neptune's
moon, Triton) are simply dissipative elements in the electrical circuit
that connects the Sun to the planets. It is electrical energy flowing in
the solar wind circuit that drives the 'volcanoes' or jets on these
frozen bodies. It is the same electrical energy flowing in the solar
wind circuit that results in the spectacular auroras and phenomenal
storms and wind speeds of the giant planets. These phenomena will remain
a puzzle to planetary specialists so long as they view planets as
isolated and electrically neutral bodies.
With these considerations in mind, we can predict with confidence that
once the capability to look closely is in hand, astronomers will
discover that the little moon Mab has an electrically machined surface
and comet-like jets that sustain the Uranian blue ring.
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