Boffins discover new dust clouds in the Solar System, Mercury has a surprisingly filthy ring

Venus also turns up a number of undiscovered orbital partners

Scientists have spotted, for the first time, gigantic dust rings circling the Sun alongside the orbits of Mercury and Venus.

The Solar System is nothing but our star, a few planets, some satellites, lots of little rocks, and a load of dust. As asteroids collide and comets burn up, leftover crumbs are scattered around space, and these particles get sucked into the orbits of planets to form dust clouds – Earth’s even got its own debris zone. Boffins hadn't expected to see one along Mercury's orbital path, though.

“People thought that Mercury, unlike Earth or Venus, is too small and too close to the Sun to capture a dust ring,” said Russell Howard, an astrophysicist working for the US Naval Research Laboratory. “They expected that the solar wind and magnetic forces from the Sun would blow any excess dust at Mercury’s orbit away.”

Instead, Mercury is surrounded by a blanket of dust stretching 9.3 million miles wide. Despite the ring's size, it wasn’t something scientists have studied much before. Although solar spacecrafts like the pair STEREO-A and STEREO-B and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe have detected dust, it’s generally ignored by scientists.

“The dust close to the Sun just shows up in our observations, and generally, we have thrown it away,” said Howard. “All around the Sun, regardless of the spacecraft’s position, we could see the same five percent increase in dust brightness, or density. That said something was there, and it’s something that extends all around the Sun.”

The results of the Mercury dust study were published this week in The Astrophysical Journal.

Venus has a few surprise lumps in her ring

Meanwhile, in a separate study, Petr Pokorny and Marc Kuchner, both research scientists working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, found the source of Venus’ dust ring: A family of asteroids that have never been seen before.


Friday fun fact: If Stegosauruses had space telescopes, they wouldn't have seen any rings around Saturn


Simulations showed that it's plausible that about 10,000 asteroids once orbited around Venus 4.5 billion years ago, but over time the constant jostling destroyed the population and only about 8 per cent (800 asteroids) have survived to the present day. The research has been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Venus’ ring is larger since its orbit is wider. The massive ring stretches about 16 million miles wide and is about 6 million miles thick.

It can be hard to spot, however, since it’s only 10 per cent denser than the normal dust levels in space. To put that into context, if the dust grains are all packed together, it would only create an asteroid about two miles across.

The next step is trying to observe these speculated group of asteroids. “I think the most exciting thing about this result is it suggests a new population of asteroids that probably holds clues to how the solar system formed,” Kuchner said. “If there’s something there, we should be able to find it,” Pokorny added. ®

Other stories you might like

  • NASA tricks Artemis launch computer by masking data showing a leak
    Plus it aborts ISS reboost. Not the greatest start to the week, was it?

    NASA engineers had to work fast to avoid another leak affecting the latest Artemis dry run, just hours after an attempt to reboost the International Space Station (ISS) via the Cygnus freighter was aborted following a few short seconds.

    The US space agency on Monday rolled the huge Artemis I stack back to its Florida launchpad having worked through the leaks and problems that had beset its previous attempt at fueling the beast in April for an earlier dress rehearsal of the final countdown.

    As propellant was loaded into the rocket, controllers noted a hydrogen leak in the quick-disconnect that attaches an umbilical from the tail service mast on the mobile launcher to the core stage of the rocket.

    Continue reading
  • NASA's SOFIA aircraft preps for final flights ahead of mission end
    With operations deadline in September, team eager to squeeze more data out of infrared observatory

    The SOFIA aircraft has returned to New Zealand for a final time ahead of the mission's conclusion later this year.

    The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft, designed to carry a 2.7-meter reflecting telescope into the stratosphere, above much of Earth's infrared-blocking atmosphere.

    A collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), development began on the project in 1996. SOFIA saw first light in 2010 and achieved full operational capability in 2014. Its prime mission was completed in 2019 and earlier this year, it was decided that SOFIA would be grounded for budgetary reasons. Operations end "no later than" September 30, 2022, followed by an "orderly shutdown."

    Continue reading
  • NASA wants nuclear reactor on the Moon by 2030
    Space boffins task engineers with creating 40kW lunar fission plant that can operate for ten years

    NASA has chosen the three companies it will fund to develop a nuclear fission reactor ready to test on the Moon by the end of the decade.

    This power plant is set to be a vital component of Artemis, the American space agency's most ambitious human spaceflight mission to date. This is a large-scale project to put the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, and establish a long-term presence on Earth's natural satellite.

    NASA envisions [PDF] astronauts living in a lunar base camp, bombing around in rovers, and using it as a launchpad to explore further out into the Solar System. In order for this to happen, it'll need to figure out how to generate a decent amount of power somehow.

    Continue reading
  • NASA delays SLS rollback due to concerns over rocky path to launchpad
    The road to the Moon is paved with... river rock?

    NASA's Moon rocket is to trundle back into its shed today after a delay caused by concerns over the crawlerway.

    The massive transporter used to move the Space Launch System between Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and launchpad requires a level pathway and teams have been working on the inclined pathway leading to the launchpad where the rocket currently resides to ensure there is an even distribution of rocks to support the mobile launcher and rocket.

    The latest wet dress rehearsal was completed on June 20 after engineers "masked" data from sensors that would have called a halt to proceedings. Once back in the VAB, engineers plan to replace a seal on the quick disconnect of the tail service mast umbilical. The stack will then roll back to the launchpad for what NASA fervently hopes is the last time before a long hoped-for launch in late August.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022