Giant Dust Ring Found Near Venus Orbit Will Assist Researchers In Understanding The Source of Interplanetary Dust

By Ajit Jha on November 22, 2013 10:18 AM EST

Zodiacal Light Vs. Milky Way
Arcing above the horizon and into the night at the left is a beautiful band of Zodiacal Light - sunlight scattered by dust in the solar system's ecliptic plane. (Photo: Daniel López, IAC)

"Weird" and "strange" are some of the common epithets used to describe the recently found "huge, diffuse ring of dust near the orbit of Venus." A similar structure in our solar was discovered only once before. The recently-discovered dust ring stretched end to end measures 220 million kilometers and is 10 percent denser than the interplanetary space pervaded cloud that produces zodiacal light, the mysterious glow that stretches across the nighttime sky, according to researchers.  

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We can't see it unaided from Earth, but if we could it would appear to stretch 45 degree, either side of the sun, according to study lead author Mark Jones, of The Open University in the United Kingdom. About 20 years ago, a similar ring near Earth's orbit was found, according to Jones. "So we have added to our knowledge of the 'geography' of the solar system," he said.

Scientists have been suspicious of such a dust ring but haven't until now had conclusive evidence for its existence. A few different space missions, including Soviet Union's Venera 9 and 10 probes in the 1970s, hinted at a dust ring near Venus. Jones and his team, therefore, set out to find the irrefutable evidence of the structure. The researchers first modeled the scattered light from the Venus ring the way they expected it. Then, they looked for the ring in images images beamed back to earth by NASA's twin STEREO probes (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory. 

The dust ring revealed by the stereo images was surprising in that it looks different than the ring near Earth's orbit because it features two distinct "steplike" components. While one step is within the Venus' orbit, the other is outside the planet's path around the sun, according to researchers. These dust rings are thought to emerge from the trappings of interplanetary dust into resonant orbits of Venus and Earth that magnify the gravitational impacts the two planets exert on each other.

While the rings themselves may live for millions of years, the pieces that constitute them don't last that long. "The lifetime of dust trapped in the ring is only about 100,000 years, so it does not provide much of a clue to the formation of the solar system," Jones said. However, the importance of the ring lies in offering us clues on interplanetary dust which is currently understood to be formed from asteroid collisions and cometary dust, according to Jones.

Further study of these rings will help researchers understand the sphere beyond the solar system. "These rings will need to be understood," said Jones, "for future missions which aim to image exoplanets using interferometers, because the rings can mask the signal from the exoplanet."

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