The football-shaped dwarf planet Haumea, which is surrounded by an almost perfectly circular ring of particles, is the most distant ringed object in the solar system. Haumea's ring is too faint to be seen from planet Earth, so astronomers have turned to context clues to find out more about these particles.
In a new study, researchers with the São Paulo Research Foundation in Brazil have detailed the ring's size, shape and other characteristics by simulating the Haumea system on a computer. By simulating the ring's particles in different configurations around the dwarf planet and calculating which scenario would render the ring most stable, the scientists were able to infer the likely qualities of the ring without ever looking at it directly.
“Our study isn’t observational. We did not directly observe the ring. No one ever has,” Othon Cabo Winter, an engineering professor at São Paulo State University in Guaratinguetá, Brazil, who led the new study, said in a statement.
Astronomers first spotted Haumea far beyond the orbit of Pluto in 2003, and it was originally classified as a Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO). The dwarf planet's two moons, Hi'iaka and Namaka, were first seen in 2005 by astronomers using the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. As astronomers began to find more objects like Haumea floating in that outer region of the solar system, the dwarf planet later became one of a handful of far-out bodies whose discovery led to Pluto being demoted from its status as the ninth planet in the solar system to the "king of the dwarf planets" in 2006.