Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Saturn has a new ring and laughs at Uranus jokes

LOS ANGELES - Saturn's majestic ring system, visible through backyard telescopes, just got a little more crowded with the discovery of a faint, new ring encircling the giant planet, scientists said Tuesday.

The international Cassini spacecraft beamed back images this week showing the new ring, located inside the outermost E ring. The new ring crosses the orbits of the Saturn moons Janus and Epimetheus, leading scientists to believe tiny particles from the lunar surfaces gave rise to the ring.

Saturn has seven major rings named A through G, although they are not arrayed in alphabetical order. The planet has about a half dozen smaller, unnamed arcs, but the latest discovery is unique because it is the farthest, said Jeff Cuzzi, a NASA planetary ring expert on the Cassini mission.

Scientists are interested in Saturn's rings because they are a model of the disk of gas and dust that initially surrounded the sun. Studying them could yield important clues about how the planets formed from that disc 4.5 billion years ago.

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