LOS ANGELES – Saturn's majestic ring system, visible through backyard telescopes, just got a little more crowded with the discovery of a faint, new ring encircling the giant planet, scientists said Tuesday.
The international Cassini spacecraft beamed back images this week showing the new ring, located inside the outermost E ring.
Saturn has seven major rings named A through G, although they are not arrayed in alphabetical order.
The planet has about a half dozen smaller, unnamed arcs, but the latest discovery is unique because it is the farthest, said Jeff Cuzzi, a NASA planetary ring expert on the Cassini mission.
Scientists are interested in Saturn's rings because they are a model of the disk of gas and dust that initially surrounded the sun. Studying them could yield important clues about how the planets formed from that disk 4.5 billion years ago.
Cassini was able to photograph the new ring Sunday when the sun passed directly behind Saturn, providing a bright backlight. Researchers are now figuring out its size and composition, but it is likely the new ring is made of water ice particles.
The $3.3 billion Cassini mission, funded by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies, was launched in 1997. Cassini is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.