Monday, November 30, 2009

Saturn’s Newly Discovered Ring System: A Curious Astronomical Oversight?

Inexplicably overlooked by the Cassini-Huygens space probe’s arrival into Saturn back in 2004 is the planet Saturn’s newly discovered ring system the greatest astronomical oversight history?

By: Ringo Bones

When a newly-discovered ring system of the planet Saturn was first seen and discovered by a space based – though still in Earth’s orbit – Spitzer Space Telescope at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory back in October 2009. The first thought that came through my mind was how come the Cassini-Huygens space probe wasn’t the first one to “see” and discover this dust-based ring system of the planet Saturn when it entered into orbit there back in July 2004? You know, that controversial Cassini-Huygens space probe whose weapons grade plutonium-based thermal generator used to power its electronics was the subject of Professor Michio Kaku’s disdain during its launch back in 1997.

This somewhat curious and inexplicable astronomical oversight aside, the newly discovered ring system of the planet Saturn is a natural wonder of the cosmos to behold. Probably greater than that in comparison to the seven ring bands that we knew before. The new ring system lies 8 million miles from Saturn’s surface, compared to 85,000 miles of the outer reaches of the previously known ring system. If seen by the naked eye from the Earth’s surface, Saturn would appear as large as the full Moon instead of just a “bright-ish” star that is of no consequence to civilians clueless about navigating using star positions. Sadly, our eyes – normal human eyes that is – are not designed to see Saturn’s newly discovered ring system.

The NASA JPL Spitzer Space Telescope, which was the instrument used to discovered the new ring system back in October 2009, is primarily designed to “see” and find dim stars – i.e. brown dwarf stars that are believed to be the underlying explanation of the dark matter phenomena - that radiate most of their energy in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope which can only reach the TV infrared remote / gallium arsenide-based night vision goggles section of the electromagnetic spectrum. The previously mysterious dust deposits on one hemisphere of Saturn’s moon Phoebe could now be safely blamed on the newly discovered ring system, which is made up mostly of ultrafine dust particles.

Given that the dust particles comprising the newly discovered ring system of Saturn has an average temperature of –300ºF, one needs specialized equipment to see it. Like a germanium bolometer, an instrument first developed by Professor Frank J. Low of the University of Arizona. A germanium bolometer is an instrument used to detect extremely weak infrared – make that thermal-range – radiation. Composed of a tiny crystal of germanium cooled by liquid helium to almost absolute zero, a germanium bolometer is able to detect a hundred-trillionth of a watt of infrared radiation - equivalent to sensing the glow of a lighted cigarette 10,000 miles away. The NASA JPL Spitzer Space Telescope was probably equipped with one.

To us amateur astronomers, being able to see the newly discovered ring system of Saturn from our hopefully light pollution free regular stargazing sites could be an almost impossible task. At an average temperature of –300ºF – which is probably 50ºF colder than the surface of Pluto – the dust that make up Saturn’s newly discovered ring system will be too cold to be visible with the more common gallium arsenide-based night vision goggles / image intensifiers. Even those Vietnam War era photomultiplier tube-based image intensifiers will probably still can’t see Saturn’s newly discovered rings. A 5,000 US dollar bolometer-on-a-chip equipped thermal camera similar to that mounted on a state of the art firefighter’s mask when placed behind the eyepiece of a Celestron reflecting telescope with an 8-inch mirror will probably work. If the telescope’s primary mirror is efficient enough in focusing in the thermal infrared range – though I haven’t tried this set up yet.

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