The rings of Haumea

Hi there! I guess you have heard, last year, of the discovery of rings around the Trans-Neptunian Object Haumea. If not, don’t worry, I speak about it. Rings around planets are known since the discovery of Saturn (in fact a little later, since we needed to understand that these were rings), and now we know that there are rings around the 4 giant planets, and some small objects, which orbit beyond Saturn.

Once such a ring is discovered, we should wonder about its origin, its lifetime, its properties… This is the opportunity for me to present a Hungarian study, Dynamics of Haumea’s dust ring, by T. Kovács and Zs. Regály. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Trans-Neptunian Object (136108)Haumea


The discovery of (136108) Haumea was announced in July 2005 by a Spanish team, led by José Luis Ortiz, observing from Sierra Nevada Observatory (Spain). This discovery was made after analysis of observations taken in March 2003. As a consequence, this new object received the provisional name 2003 EL61.

But meanwhile, this object was observed since several months by the American team of Michael Brown, from Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, in Chile, who also observed Eris. This led to a controversy. Eventually, the Minor Planet Center, which depends on the International Astronomical Union, credited Ortiz’s team for the discovery of the object, since they were the first to announce it. However its final name, Haumea, has been proposed by the American team, while usually the final name is chosen by the discoverer. Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth in Hawaiian mythology. The Spanish team wished to name it Ataecina, after a popular goddess worshipped by the ancient inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula.

Reanalysis of past observations revealed the presence of Haumea on photographic plates taken in 1955 at Palomar Observatory (we call that a precovery).


You can find below some numbers regarding Haumea.

Semi-major axis 43.218 AU
Eccentricity 0.191
Inclination 28.19°
Orbital period 284.12 yr
Spin period 3.92 h
Dimensions 2,322 × 1,704 × 1,138 km
Apparent magnitude 17.3

As a massive Trans-Neptunian Object, i.e. massive enough to have a pretty spherical shape, it is classified as an ice dwarf, or plutoid. This shape is pretty regular, but not that spherical actually. As you can see from its 3 diameters (here I give the most recent numbers), this is a triaxial object, with a pretty elongated shape… and this will be important for the study.

It orbits in the 7:12 mean-motion resonance with Neptune, i.e. it performs exactly 7 revolutions around the Sun while Neptune makes 12. This is a 5th order resonance, i.e. a pretty weak one, but which anyway permits some stability of the objects, which are trapped inside. This is why we can find some!

We can also see that it has a rapid rotation (less then 4 hours!). Moreover, it is pretty bright, with a geometrical albedo close to 0.8. This probably reveals water ice at its surface.

And Haumea has two satellites, and even rings!

Two satellites, and rings

Haumea has two known satellites, Namaka and Hi’iaka, named after two daughters of the goddess Haumea. They were discovered by the team of Michael Brown in 2005, simultaneously with its observations of Haumea, i.e. before the announcement of its discovery. You can find below some of their characteristics.

Namaka Hi’iaka
Semi-major axis 25657 km 49880 km
Eccentricity 0.25 0.05
Orbital period 18.28 d 49.46 d
Mean diameter 170 km 310 km
Keck image of Haumea and its moons. Hi'iaka is above Haumea (center), and Namaka is directly below. © Californian Institute of Technology
Keck image of Haumea and its moons. Hi’iaka is above Haumea (center), and Namaka is directly below. © Californian Institute of Technology

Usually such systems are expected to present spin-orbit resonances, e.g. like our Moon which rotates synchronously with the Earth. Another example is Pluto-Charon, which is doubly synchronous: Pluto and Charon have the same spin (rotational) period, which is also the orbital period of Charon around Pluto. Here, we see nothing alike. The rotational period of Haumea is 4 hours, while its satellites orbit much slower. We do not dispose of enough data to determine their rotation periods, maybe they are synchronous, i.e. with spin periods of 18.28 and 49.46 days, respectively… maybe they are not.

This synchronous state is reached after tidal dissipation slowed the rotation enough. Future measurements of the rotation of the two satellites could tell us something on the age of this ternary system.

And last year, an international team led by José Luis Ortiz (the same one) announced the discovery of a ring around Haumea.

Rings beyond Jupiter

In the Solar System, rings are known from the orbit of Jupiter, and beyond:

  • Jupiter has a system of faint rings,
  • should I introduce the rings of Saturn?
  • Uranus has faint rings, which were discovered in 1977,
  • the rings of Neptune were discovered in 1984, before being imaged by Voyager 2 in 1989. Interestingly, one of these rings, the Adams ring, contains arcs, i.e. zones in which the ring is denser. These arcs seem to be very stable, and this stability is not fully understood by now.
Arcs in the Adams ring (left to right: Fraternité, Égalité, Liberté), plus the Le Verrier ring on the inside. © NASA
Arcs in the Adams ring (left to right: Fraternité, Égalité, Liberté), plus the Le Verrier ring on the inside. © NASA

Surprisingly, we know since 2014 that small bodies beyond the orbit of Jupiter may have rings:

  • An international team detected rings around the Centaur Chariklo in 2014 (remember: a Centaur is a body, which orbits between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune),
  • another team (with some overlaps with the previous one), discovered rings around Haumea in 2017,
  • observations in 2015 are consistent with ring material around the Centaur Chiron, but the results are not that conclusive.

These last discoveries were made thanks to stellar occultations: the object should occult a star, then several teams observe it from several locations. While the planetary object is too faint to be observed from Earth with classical telescopes, the stars can be observed. If at some point no light from the star is being recorded while the sky is clear, this means that it is occulted. And the spatial and temporal distributions of the recorded occultations give clues on the shape of the body, and even on the rings when present.

Why rings around dwarf planets?

Rings around giant planets orbit inside the Roche limit. Below this limit, a planetary object cannot accrete, because the intense gravitational field of the giant planet nearby would induce too much tidal stress, and prevent the accretion. But how can we understand rings around dwarf planets? Chiron presents some cometary activity, so the rings, if they exist, could be constituted of this ejected material. But understanding the behavior of dust around such a small object is challenging (partly because it is a new challenge).

In 2015, the American planetologist Matthew Hedman noticed that dense planetary rings had been only found between 8 and 20 AU, and proposed that the temperature of water ice in that area, which is close to 70 K (-203°C, -333°F), made it very weak and likely to produce rings. In other words, rings would be favored by the properties of the material. I find this explanation particularly interesting, since no ring system has been discovered in the Asteroid Main Belt. That paper was published before the discovery of rings around Haumea, which is far below the limit of 20 UA. I wonder how the Haumea case would affect these theoretical results.

In the specific case of Haumea, the ring has a width of 70 kilometers and a radius of about 2,287 kilometers, which makes it close to the 3:1 ground-track resonance, i.e. the particles constituting the ring make one revolution around Haumea, while Haumea makes 3 rotations.

Numerical simulations

Let us now focus of our study. The authors aimed at understanding the dynamics and stability of the discovered rings around Haumea. For that, they took different particles, initially on circular orbits around Haumea, at different distances, and propagated their motions.
Propagating their motions consists in using a numerical integrator, which simulates the motion in the future. There are powerful numerical tools which perform this task reliably and efficiently. These tools are classified following their algorithm and order. The order is the magnitude of the approximation, which is made at each timestep. A high order means a highly accurate simulation. Here, the authors used a fourth order Runge-Kutta scheme. It is not uncommon to see higher-order tools (orders between 8 and 15) in such studies. The motions are propagated over 1 to 1,000 years.

A gravitational and thermal physical model

The authors assumed the particles to be affected by

  • the gravitational field of Haumea, including its triaxiality. This is particularly critical to consider the ground-track resonances, while the actually observed ring is close to the 3:1 resonance,
  • the gravitational perturbation by the two small moons, Namaka and Hi’iaka,
  • the Solar radiation pressure.

This last force is not a gravitational, but a thermal one. It is due to an exchange of angular momentum between the particle, and the electromagnetic field, which is due to the Solar radiation. For a given particle size, the Solar radiation pressure has pretty the same magnitude for all of the particles, while the gravitational field of Haumea decreases with the distance. As a consequence, the furthest particles are the most sensitive to the radiation pressure. Moreover, this influence is inversely proportional to the grain size, i.e. small particles are more affected than the large ones.

And now, the results!

A probable excess of small particles

The numerical simulations show that the smaller the grains size, the narrower the final ring structure. The reason is that smaller particles will be ejected by the radiation pressure, unless they are close enough to Haumea, where its gravity field dominates.

And this is where you should compare the simulations with the observations. The observations tell you that the ring system of Haumea is narrow, this would be consistent with an excess of particles with grain size of approximately 1 μm.

So, such a study may constrain the composition of the rings, and may help us to understand its origin. Another explanation could be that there was originally no particle that far, but in that case you should explain why. Let us say that we have an argument for a ring essentially made of small particles.

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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