But it also gives planners for deep-space missions, like the New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto, an extra item on the checklist of hidden hazards to watch for as the probe hurtles toward its next destination. "But as someone with MU69 on his mind, I did meet the news with some trepidation", says Showalter, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute.
This handout photo released by Nature shows an artistic view of Haumea and its ring system with correct proportions for the main body and the ring. "We'll be doing a great deal of studying and preparation".
This suggested something was obscuring it, most likely a series of rings, that was only confirmed after many months of follow-up research by a team led by José Luis Ortiz of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía.
Researchers from 10 different labs observed Haumea with 12 different telescopes across Europe as it passed in front of a star called URAT1 533-182543 - an event astronomers called an occultation.
Though unexpected, it wasn't a huge surprise, Ortiz says. New evidence is consistent with the presence of a ring. "The authors' results suggest that Haumea might not be in hydrostatic equilibrium, and this touches on the still-sensitive topic of how planets and dwarf planets should be defined", writes Amanda Sickafoose, an astronomer at MIT, in an accompanying article also published in Nature today.
The occultation also provided the team with our best analysis yet of Haumea's size and shape, which the researchers describe as "very exotic". We think that ring systems can form in different ways: They could be cobbled together from material left over from a planet's own formation, formed when a passing lump of rock is captured and broken up, or even, in the case of Saturn's E-ring, constantly replenished from ice spewing out of an orbiting moon.
In 2015, another team announced that similar observations of the centaur 2060 Chiron, made in 2011, hint at rings around that asteroid. Saturn's rings, for example partly came from Enceladus, one of its 53 moons.
Scientists have discovered a ring around a dwarf planet Haumea, which orbits in the outer reaches of the solar system. It's a controversial object, just not one that scientists know much about.
The specifics to how Haumea dimmed the light of that distant star would be perfectly explained by a semi-transparent ring with a width of 70km and a radius of 2287km.
As far as the context, there are other objects besides Haumea or the gas giants with rings, too.