Mystery on the edge of the Solar System: A strange object is changing in full view of astronomers

American planetary scientists have discovered changes in the material surrounding an object in the Solar System called Chiron. This has questioned the theory that it is surrounded by two dust rings.

Chiron in the Hubble telescope image. Source: NASA

Chiron was opened in 1977. Its diameter is approximately 220-250 km, and it moves in an elongated orbit, lying in the gap between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune. Chiron was originally classified as an asteroid, but then it showed signs of cometary activity. Moreover, several more bodies with similar physical and orbital characteristics were subsequently discovered. Therefore, astronomers have assigned them to a separate class called centaurs.

In 2011, Chiron passed against the background of a star. During the observation of the occultation, astronomers noticed that its brilliance decreased twice even before meeting Chiron and then twice after the covering was completed. Based on this, it was suggested that the centaur had two rings located at a distance of about 320 km from its center.

Chiron in the artist’s image. Source: ESO

But, apparently, the space around Chiron is much more complicated than previously thought. In 2018, the centaur eclipsed the background star again. The observations of this event surprised astronomers. Before the start of the covering, they recorded drops in brightness at a distance of 352, 344 and 316 km from the center of Chiron. However, after its completion, the brightness of the star decreased only twice — at a distance of 357 and 364 km from the center of the centaur.

Such an asymmetry and mismatch of distances contradicts the theory that Chiron has a pair of stable rings — because in this case, astronomers would see two “dips” at the same distance. In reality, they observed a completely different picture. According to the researchers, Chiron does not actually have a stable ring system. Instead, the centaur is surrounded by a cloud of material that is changing in full view of our eyes.

Most likely, Chiron is the source of this material. The material could have been ejected by it during “cometary outbursts” like those observed in 2021, when the brightness of the centaur temporarily increased. It is also possible that Chiron has a small satellite that interacts with the surrounding cloud, which leads to a constant change in its shape.

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