Ever hear of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope?

No? Well maybe you've heard of the Hubble Space Telescope? unlike Hubble, which takes pictures in visible light, Spitzer takes infrared light photos. Formerly called Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), Spitzer was launched in 2003 by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Spitzer obtains images and spectra by detecting infrared energy, or heat, radiated by objects in space. Spitzer is the largest infrared telescope ever launched into space. It lets us to peer into regions of space which are hidden from optical telescopes.

So what about this giant new ring around Saturn? The diagram here show a slice of this ring (red band in inset photo). Spitzer detected infrared light from the dusty ring material while viewing the ring edge-on. Here's some impressive facts:
  • It would take 1 billion Earths to fill this ring
  • The ring has a diameter equivalent to 300 Saturns lined up side to side
  • 20 Saturns could fit into its vertical height
OK, this ring is BIG! Then why did it take so long to discover it?

  1. The ice and dust particles in the ring are far apart
  2. Saturn doesn't receive a lot of sunlight
  3. The rings don't reflect much visible light
Aha! So Spitzer was the perfect tool to spot this ring by picking up on the heat (not the light).

Learn more here:

CNN: Scientists discover massive ring around Saturn

Exploratiorium: Jewel of the Solar System - Saturn