Cosmic dust bunnies: Scientists find unexpected ring around Mercury

dust ring mercury option5  recovered
In this illustration, several dust rings circle the Sun. These rings form when planets’ gravities tug dust grains into orbit around the Sun. Recently, scientists have detected a dust ring at Mercury’s orbit. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

Dust turns up everywhere — on bookshelves, under the sofa, and now, apparently, in rings around Mercury. Astronomers have made a surprising discovery, finding a ring of cosmic dust in an unexpected place in our solar system.

Solar scientists Guillermo Stenborg and Russell Howard from the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. did not set out looking for dust. Just the opposite — they were looking for a dust-free region close to the Sun in preparation for the explorations performed by the Parker Solar Probe. Scientists believe there should be a region close to the Sun where the heat from the star would vaporize any dust, and finding the edge of this region would tell us more about what cosmic dust is made of and how planets formed in a young solar system.

Instead, Stenborg and Howard stumbled across a “fine haze of cosmic dust” sprinkled across the orbit of Mercury, which forms a ring that is 9.3 million miles wide. Mercury itself is only 3,030 miles wide, so it floats through a vast sea of dust as it moves around the Sun.

“We’re not really dust people,” Howard said in a statement. His team was trying to remove the effects of dust from images so the Parker Solar Probe can see the Sun more clearly. “The dust close to the Sun just shows up in our observations, and generally, we have thrown it away.” But this time, they realized the dust they were trying to scrub away was far denser and more prevalent than they had expected.

It hadn’t previously occurred to scientists that there could be a dust ring around Mercury, so no one had to thought to look for one before. “People thought that Mercury, unlike Earth or Venus, is too small and too close to the Sun to capture a dust ring,” Stenborg said. “They expected that the solar wind and magnetic forces from the Sun would blow any excess dust at Mercury’s orbit away.”

Now Howard and Stenborg will pass the challenge of investigating Mercury’s dust ring to “dust people,” and will focus back on searching for the dust-free zone as the Parker Solar Probe explores the Sun’s corona.

Emerging Tech

A giant new solar farm in Texas will harness the sun’s rays to … brew beer?

Brewing beer is surprisingly energy intensive. With a giant new solar farm in Texas, the world’s largest beer manufacturer promises to brew 100% of its beverages using renewable energy.
Movies & TV

Skip the sunshine this summer and watch the best shows on Hulu

It's often overwhelming to navigate Hulu's robust library of TV shows. To help, we put together a list of the best shows on Hulu, whether you're into frenetic cartoons, intelligent dramas, or anything in between.
Emerging Tech

Ex astris, scientia: Star Trek logo spotted on the surface of Mars

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been boldly going to Mars and capturing images since 2005, and now it has spotted something where no man has gone before: a structure on the planet's surface which will look familiar to Trekkies.
Emerging Tech

Two baby gas giants spotted in orbit around a distant star

Two baby planets have been spotted forming around a distant young star called PDS 70. The two planets are growing into gas giants, and one of them came as a complete surprise to the astronomers imaging the star.
Emerging Tech

In the search for extraterrestrial life, we should look to exomoons

Traditionally scientists have looked to other planets for signs of life, but a new study by an astrophysicist from the University of Lincoln, U.K., suggests we may be more successful if we started looking at moons as well.
Emerging Tech

Uber Eats’ drone delivery service could see Big Macs hit speeds of 70 mph

Uber Eats is testing meal delivery using drones. The company wants to start a commercial delivery service using the drone this summer, but it still needs permission from regulators.
Emerging Tech

This lifesaving wearable could diagnose strokes more accurately

A new breakthrough wearable device uses two light measurement techniques to track the body's blood circulation — and accurately predict deadly strokes in the process. Here's how it works.
Emerging Tech

Sloshed drone pilots in Japan can now be punished with jail time

If you're flying a drone in Japan, better not be sloshed when you send your bird skyward. A new law passed this week could see drunk drone pilots sent to jail for up to a year or hit with a hefty fine.
Emerging Tech

Mount Everest is now home to the world’s highest weather station

A team of scientists has created a new record with the installation of the world’s highest weather station atop Everest. Data from the expedition will help researchers better understand the effect of climate change on the region.
Emerging Tech

This drone with hands looks like a nightmare straight out of Black Mirror

This unlikely drone-with-hands creation is the work of Federico Ciccarese, the brains behind YouBionic, a bionic hand project that has evolved far beyond its original brief. Check it out.
Emerging Tech

This crazy-looking robot uses microspines on its legs to climb up walls

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have built a bioinspired robot, which uses microspines on its feet to grip onto rough surfaces. This allows it to climb up very steep gradients. Check it out.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Florida’s autonomous vehicle law, E3 updates, and more

On this episode of DT Live, we take a look at the biggest trending stories in tech, including Florida allowing fully autonomous vehicles on the road, Atari’s new gaming system, E3 updates, high-speed rail, and more.
Emerging Tech

Got $400 million to burn? The world’s largest airplane is up for sale

Stratolaunch, the world's largest airplane, is up for sale. All it'll cost you is $400 million dollars. The brainchild of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the plane was supposed to make space travel more accessible and affordable.
Emerging Tech

Adobe develops tool to identify Photoshopped images of faces

With deepfake videos making headlines, and campaigns against the Photoshopping of models, people are more aware than ever of the digital manipulation of images. Now Adobe wants to give tools to users to let them spot faked images.