The Ring System

The rings of Uranus were the first to be found around a planet other than Saturn. The American astronomer James L. Elliot and colleagues discovered the ring system from Earth in 1977, nine years before the Voyager 2 encounter, during a stellar occultation by Uranus—i.e., when the planet passed between a star and Earth, temporarily blocking the star's light. Unexpectedly, they observed the star to dim briefly five times at some considerable distance above Uranus's atmosphere both before and after the planet occulted the star. The dips in brightness indicated that the planet was encircled by five narrow rings. Later Earth-based observations revealed four additional rings. Voyager 2 detected a 10th ring and found indications of others. Outward from Uranus, the 10 are named 6, 5, 4, Alpha, Beta, Eta,

Gamma, Delta, Lambda, and Epsilon. The cumbersome nomenclature arose as the new rings were found in places that did not fit the original nomenclature.

The rings are narrow and fairly opaque. Observed widths are the product (more precisely, the integral) of the radial distance and the fraction of starlight blocked. The fact that the equivalent widths are generally less than the observed widths indicates that the rings are not completely opaque. Combining the brightness of the rings observed in Voyager images with the equivalent widths from occultations shows that the ring particles reflect less than 5 percent of the incident sunlight. Their nearly flat reflectance spectrum means that the particles are basically gray in colour. Ordinary soot, which is mostly carbon, is the closest terrestrial analogue. It is not known whether the carbon comes from darkening of methane by particle bombardment or is intrinsic to the ring particles.

The scattering effects on Voyager's radio signal propagated through the rings to Earth revealed that the rings consist of mostly large particles, objects greater than 140 cm (4.6 feet) across. Scattering of sunlight when Voyager was on the far side of the rings and aiming its camera back toward the Sun also revealed small dust particles in the micrometre size range. Only a small amount of dust was found in the main rings. Most of the microscopic particles were instead distributed in the spaces between the main rings, which suggests that the rings are losing mass as a result of collisions. The lifetime of the dust in orbit around Uranus is limited by drag exerted by the planet's extended atmosphere and by the radiation pressure of sunlight; the dust particles are driven to lower orbits and eventually fall into the Uranian atmosphere. The calculated orbital lifetimes are so short—1,000 years—that the dust must be rapidly and continually created. Uranus's atmospheric drag appears to be so large that the present rings themselves may be short-lived. If so, the rings did not form with Uranus, and their origin and history are unknown.

Collisions between the tightly packed ring particles would naturally lead to an increase in the radial width of the rings. As with the rings of Saturn, moons more massive than the rings can halt this spreading through shepherding. Voyager 2 found that the innermost two moons, Cordelia and Ophelia, orbit on either side of the Epsilon ring at exactly the right radii required for shepherding. Shepherds for the other rings were not observed, perhaps because the moons are too small to be seen in the Voyager images. Small moons may also be reservoirs that supply the dust leaving the ring system.

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