A near-infrared view of the giant planet Uranus with rings and some of its moons, was obtained November 19, 2002, with the ISAAC multi-mode instrument on the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile).
Don't worry -- you are not the only one who thought this was a nice amateur photo of planet Saturn, Lord of the Rings in our Solar System!
But then the relative brightness and positions of the moons may appear somewhat unfamiliar ... and the ring system does look unusually bright when compared to the planetary disk ...??
Well, it is not Saturn, but Uranus, the next giant planet further out, located at a distance of about 3,000 million km, or 20 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth.
The photo shows Uranus surrounded by its rings and some of the moons, as they appear on a near-infrared image that was obtained in the Ks-band (at wavelength 2.2 µm) with the ISAAC multi-mode instrument on the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile).
The exposure was made on November 19, 2002 (03:00 hrs UT) during a planetary research programme. The observing conditions were excellent (seeing 0.5 arcsec) and the exposure lasted 5 min. The angular diameter of Uranus is about 3.5 arcsec.
The observers at ISAAC were Emmanuel Lellouch and Thérése Encrenaz of the Observatoire de Paris (France) and Jean-Gabriel Cuby and Andreas Jaunsen (both ESO-Chile).
The rings of Uranus were discovered in 1977, from observations during a stellar occultation event by astronomer teams at the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) and the Perth Observatory (Australia). Just before and after the planet moved in front of the (occulted) star, the surrounding rings caused the starlight to dim for short intervals of time. Photos obtained from the Voyager-2 spacecraft in 1986 showed a multitude of very tenuous rings. These rings are almost undetectable from the Earth in visible light.
However, on the present VLT near-infrared picture, the contrast between the rings and the planet is strongly enhanced. At the particular wavelength at which this observation was made, the infalling sunlight is almost completely absorbed by gaseous methane present in the planetary atmosphere and the disk of Uranus therefore appears unsually dark. At the same time, the icy material in the rings reflects the sunlight and appears comparatively bright.
Uranus is unique among the planets of the solar system in having a tilted rotation axis that is close to the main solar system plane in which most planets move (the "Ecliptic"). At the time of the Voyager-2 encounter (1986), the southern pole was oriented toward the Earth.
Now, sixteen years later (corresponding to about one-fifth of Uranus' 84-year period of revolution), we observe the Uranian ring system at an angle that is comparable to the one under which we see Saturn when its ring system is most "open".
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A Near-Infrared View of Uranus, Its Ring system, and Two Satellites
Hilo - Mar 18, 2002
This image of Uranus, its ring system, and two of its satellites Miranda (top-center) and Ariel (bottom-left) is from Subaru Telescope's Coronagraphic Imager with Adaptive Optics (CIAO) combined with Subaru Telescope's adaptive optics system (AO).
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