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Guide to the New Worlds of the Solar System

Updated on June 30, 2014

Guide to the New Worlds of the Solar System

Just when you thought you were beginning to understand the Solar System as either spherical (round) objects such as planets, moons, and comets or irregular rocks (most asteroids) that are sometimes jagged; along comes Haumea to throw a monkey wrench in the works. Haumea is shaped like an egg and not like the one in your refrigerator with a point on one end and not as pointy on the other end (oval). No, Haumea looks like an ellipse.

Does the Solar System never run out of surprises?

I did not want to do a lens about a world about which so little is known and, worse, science will not get much information about it anytime soon. Telescopes cannot image it very well and no probes are planned to visit it. Certainly not with the world economy so bad and not expected to improve soon, if Uranus (a major planet) cannot get any money allocated to study it, then "just another world" like Haumea cannot expect more than token interest. And no plans for dedicated probes, much less building and launching these hypothetical probes. Why tantalize us with a world like Haumea that is out of reach?

new worlds

The good news is that if the Americans and Europeans cannot afford a probe to visit Uranus and a probe to visit the objects beyond Pluto; then it is possible that Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Australia, India, China, South Africa, South Korea, Mexico, Canada, Russia, and a few other scientifically curious nations might decide to collaborate on missions to these places. Since each would only contribute a relatively small amount of money, the cost to each individual nation would be viewed as inexpensive for the scientific payoff. And such a collaboration would pull from a diverse international pool of scientific talent. The cost of launching rockets continues to drop as American launch companies in particular get better at it. So the real obstacle to missions to the Seventh Planet and a mission to the seven new worlds of Eris, Makemake, Haumea, Sedna, 2007 OR 10, Quaoar, and Orcus is you the reader.

Star Trek introduction

"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

nothing good happens without Y-O-U - Why? Oh! You.

How are you the obstacle? Until you speak up and get the ball rolling, these missions will not happen. Someone has to put pencil to paper and draft a preliminary plan and mission design. Someone has to present a paper at a scientific conference or press conference that advocates these missions. Then others will hear you and say: "That's not a bad idea. It's affordable. It's do-able." You might be a grad student or a scientist (unlikely that a scientist would be reading my article but you never know) or a teacher or an engineer or a philanthropist or an amateur astronomer or some other category. As a student, you might think to yourself that you really want to spend an academic career pursuing this passion. You might want to feel vindicated like Dr. Peter Higgs when they applauded him at at the Large Hadron Collider lab that discovered evidence of the Higgs boson. You might want to feel like Clyde Tombaugh when Pluto was discovered. You might be a teacher who simply wants to inspire your students. You might be an engineer who either wants to head the team or be a part of the team that designs and builds and launches the probes. You might be a philanthropist who wants to fund something that your grandchildren can be proud of. Or you might be aware that 2007 OR 10 is the largest object in the Solar System without a name and you think that it ought to have a name.

Whatever your motivation, you have to be the first to propose a mission to the Uranian Subsystem or a mission to the objects beyond Pluto. Or someone else will be first. And no one will remember someone who kept their mouth shut when it could have made a difference.

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largest known Kuiper Belt objects

Eris -- 2003 UB313 was formerly and informally called Xena (because the discoverer liked the show Xena: Warrior Princess) until it got an official name. This world is named after the goddess of strife, discord, contention and rivalry in Greek mythology. It is well-named because it brought strife and led to Pluto being demoted. Since terrorists are likely to colonize this planet, perhaps we should save time and money and lives and just bomb it to dust now. This little troublemaker has a moon named Dysnomia from the Ancient Greek word that means "lawlessness" (think Lucy Lawless) after the daughter of the Greek goddess Eris. Just vaporize it now. Like dogs and children, never give them a bad name. Eris has about a 26 hour day. This dwarf planet is beyond the orbit of Neptune, is a plutoid (ice body rounded in shape), is part of the scattered disk (distant region of the Solar System sparsely populated by minor planets), and binary with Dysnomia. Its day is almost the length as ours. Literally in the dark for ages. Add the Dark Ages of Earth and our terrorists and Eris will be like Earth. Like I said, nuke it.

Makemake -- 2005 FY9 Makemake is a planet on the make and as such, we have to take what it says with a grain of salt. You get a lot more honesty with a planet like Neptune. Joking aside, Makemake is named for the ancient god of the extinct civilization of Easter Island. It is mainly ice and rock, which can be said of comets and several moons in the Solar System.

Haumea -- 2003 EL61. The day is less than four hours. Remember, a day is one rotation so the light is about two hours and the night is the other two hours. Truly a place for life in the fast lane. The reason that the planet is so squashed in appearance is because it spins so fast. There are actually a lot of flattened stars and planets in the Milky Way and probably this is true of the universe outside our galaxy. Haumea could become a world where astronauts train before going to other fast spinning worlds in other stellar systems. The obvious question is that if you play basketball on the equator of Haumea, then do you risk being slung into orbit and dying a death that Michael Jordan would find interesting? Talk about hanging air! So parents would only let their children play jump rope on the north and south pole of Haumea where there is less risk of this hypothetical danger. Of course, once a colonist on Haumea got used to the low gravity then they would be too weak to endanger themselves with improbable events. Only someone from Earth or a heavy gravity planet would have the strength and speed to do the Air Jordan thing. And during the long voyage to Haumea, their muscles would likely deteriorate anyway even with artificial gravity. Scientists who study gravity will have a field day researching Haumea. It might even help us understand neutron stars and black holes better. The name of the planet comes from the matron goddess of the island of Hawai'i, where the Mauna Kea Observatory is located. However the early observations were done at Palomar Observatory in California and Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain. It is sobering to realize that while orbital-based telescopes above the smog of the atmosphere such as Hubble get well-deserved media attention, that ground-based telescopes can still make discoveries. Palomar is smack in the middle of light pollution so it is heart-warming to see this venerable old scope can still compete with the super-telescopes of Mauna Kea and the super-telescopes of the Southern Hemisphere. Way to go, Palomar! Haumea has two moons: Hi'iaka (which is larger than all but the four largest asteroids Ceres, Pallas, Vesta and Hygiea) and Namaka. Both moons have a surface of water ice.

2007 OR10 -- the largest body in the Solar System without a name. Thin methane atmosphere.

Quaoar -- What we know is that it has a remarkably circular orbit for a Kuiper Belt object and it went through geological warming in the past. Quaoar is named after the creator god of the Tongva, the native people of Los Angeles where the discovery of the dwarf planet was made. It is the largest object classified as a cubewano. Its surface composition may be water and ammonia. When you consider how rare water is in places like Mercury, The Moon, equatorial Mars, and elsewhere in the Solar System, it is sometimes surprising when you often observe water ice out here until you remember that you are approaching the home of the comets which have a lot of water ice. Quaoar has one moon, Weywot, named for the son of the god Quaoar.

Orcus -- third largest Kuiper Belt object after Pluto and Eris. It is a plutino, a trans-Neptunian object in 2:3 mean motion resonance with Neptune. That means for every three orbits that Neptune makes, it orbits twice. I know that you are thinking: big deal. The further out, the longer it takes to circuit the sun. A child could figure that out. But the resonance part, the two to three mathematics fascinates scientists and enables them to see the universe as one big clock and to make lots of predictions. Predictability is why astronomers can practically do certain aspects of their job with their eyes shut. Whenever a given phenomenon is not expected, astronomers suddenly jump wide awake and the phone lines burn with excitement. The present is one of the most exciting times for astronomers because they are finding a lot of unexpected things. Orcus not being one of them. Orcus has one moon, Vanth.

Ixion -- the fifth largest plutino, it has a surface made of a mixture of tholin and water ice. It may be comparable in size to the asteroid Vesta.

Varuna -- second largest object classified as a cubewano.

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Please note that in some languages Pluto is called Pluton.

Eris

I will be adding more to this section on Eris as time permits.

Makemake

ditto, under construction

2007 OR10

This is the biggest object in the Solar System without a name. How big? It is bigger than Pluto's largest moon Charon and almost the size of Haumea.

It has been nicknamed Snow White because the graduate student who nicknamed it thought it broke off Haumea. Haumea is not white. And 2007 OR10 is one of the reddest objects in the Solar System.

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image from Creative Commons

Quaoar

Its moon is called Weywot.

Observation of the surface of Quaour reveals the signs of cryovolcanoes. These are ice volcanoes that erupt with methane, ammonia or water instead of lava.

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38628 Huya

As you know Pluto does not have a round orbit but an oval ellipse that brings it sometimes closer to the sun than Neptune and sometimes farther. This kind of orbit is one of the things that got it kicked out of classification as a planet. Likewise, Huya has this kind of orbit. Its perhelion or point in its orbit when it is closest to the sun will come in December 2014 and perhaps the best telescopes will give us a better look at this newly discovered world.

Huya also has a moon but as of now, that moon has not been named.

28978 Ixion

Ixion is also known as 2001 KX76. This dwarf planet is a TNO (trans-Neptunian object) and a plutino. Its surface includes the organic chemicals known as tholins, common out here. Any extremophile life that develops out here will have little in common with life in warmer climes.

Ixion is the second smallest object out here to have a name rather than just a number (and barely that). Chaos holds the title of smallest TNO with a name. Varuna is slightly larger than Ixion. To give you an idea of size, Pluto is huge compared Ixion.

Orcus - and its moon Vanth

I don't need to tell you that everything past Neptune is represented by the work of space artists commissioned by NASA or an astronomical institution. Even Pluto is only now beginning to come into focus and we have to strain for that little bit.

Orcus is a plutino (that means it is in resonance with Neptune) and a possible plutoid (ice dwarf). Many natural satellites (moons) are the result of collision like Luna (Earth's moon). Vanth is not a collisional moon. It may have been the result of rotational fission back in the primordial days of the Solar System. There is a third process of creating a moon. More likely Vanth was captured because its spectrum and hence chemistry is different from Orcus.

Orcus is almost the size of Ceres. It is bigger than Varuna.

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Sedna

obviously an artist's conception since our best telescopes can't image it well

the view from Sedna towards the sun

comparison of sizes

Sedna -- This dwarf planet is the second reddest object in the Solar System after Amalthea. Mars does not count since the so-called Red Planet of Mars changes color with its seasons (though it twinkles red in our sky). Its surface composition includes nitrogen ice and tholins along with the typical methane frost and water ice typical of objects out beyond Neptune. However, Sedna is so far out that it is part of the Oort Cloud not a Kuiper Belt object like the other worlds here. Sedna is larger than any asteroid, even Ceres. Sedna is also the largest object found since Pluto was discovered. Some say that like Ceres, it is the first of many objects we will find in the Oort Cloud. Whether it is also the largest of its kind (like Ceres is the largest asteroid), remains to be seen. Not counting comets that swoop near the sun periodically, Sedna (which does no swooping) is the farthest known object in the Solar System. Sedna is so cold that any residents must come to Pluto to sunbathe on former Ninth Planet's toasty sands. Its temperature never rises above 33 Kelvin (-240 °Celsius; -400 °Fahrenheit). Sedna does not have a round regular orbit like the eight major planets. Like Pluto, its distance varies. Right now and over the next 72 years, this is the closest Sedna will come to Earth and the Sun (perihelion) before it heads out over 10,500 years to aphelion at 937 AU. One astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun. So Sedna will be nine hundred thirty-seven times further out. Get a planetarium director to explain the proportions or get a math teacher to show you the relative distances on a football field. I promise you that you will be impressed. Its year is about 11,400 of our years. In other words, Sedna is a significant point in the Solar System if only scientifically. As the coldest most distant place known in the Solar System, it was deemed appropriate by its discoverer to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who was thought to live at the bottom of the frigid Arctic Ocean. Sedna does not have a moon but some astronomers are still looking. It could be a black body of tar and empty space, an extinct comet.

the view again but with things identified

On the left is looking towards the center of the Milky Way. Antares is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius and Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Both stars in both constellations are (obviously) outside the Solar System.

The Milky Way is not outside the Solar System because the Solar System is inside the Milky Way -- along with most stars we can see. (You need a pretty big telescope to resolve stars in other galaxies).

Astronomers out here will not complain about light pollution. They'll probably miss sunshine.

I'm sorry Sedna - You are no longer the most distant object in the Solar System.

Not quite as traumatic as when the existence of Eris got Pluto demoted from being a planet but the thing with science discovery is that yesterday's superlative is tomorrow's also ran.

Actually, 2012 VP113 at the moment is farther away than Sedna but Sedna's aphelion is 937 Astronomical Units (AU). That takes from the Kuiper Belt out to the inner Oort Cloud. So you know, the outer Oort Cloud extends halfway to the next star (Alpha Centauri). Sedna's orbit might seem that that of a comet except at perihelion, it never comes closer to the Sun than way beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto at 76 AU.

2012 VP113, by contrast, has a tamer orbit with perihelion of 80 AU and aphelion of 449 AU.

[One AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun.]

2012 VP113

Nickname is Biden.

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Credit: Scott S. Sheppard/Carnegie Institution for Science

Amazon Spotlight Personal Review

Kindle Edition

Devanee's Book of Dwarf Planets
Devanee's Book of Dwarf Planets

There are few books about the new worlds of the Solar System. This is one of them.

 

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As you can tell, the maps cannot keep up. As fast as they add new worlds in the Solar System, the old charts become obsolete.

They are not really "new" because they were there the whole time. However, every time better telescopes are built and gather first light and every time new probes launched years earlier finally reach the outer Solar System travelling further out, we discover worlds we had not seen before and have to fit them into old charts. If an object previously called X or some long number like 123456789 is measured better or a fuzzy object comes into focus or we calculate an orbit, then things barely seen or not seen at all become known. It may get a name and more scientists take interest in a particular object and it becomes familiar especially to astronomers specifically and to the public in general.

This is one way we explore the backyard of our Solar System. Meanwhile, the Search for ExtraSolar Planets (SESP) puts the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) to shame and has so far discovered hundreds of planets outside the Solar System. Should we build starships and go there to see for ourselves in person, then we will pass through the "Outer Limits" (remember that show?) of the outer outer Solar System and see the New Worlds of the Solar System for the first time.

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Symbols for large trans-Neptunian objects

Not official but no one else is bothering. This page and these graphics by Denis Moskowitz.

Varuna

We end this lens the way we began it. Haumea is known to be elliptical in shape rather than the round sphere shape we expect of planets or the odd jagged shape we expect of asteroids (except the largest). Haumea might have been unique in the Solar System but for the research that indicates that Varuna is a tri-axial ellipsoid in shape. Varuna was actually discovered before Haumea but Haumea got the attention of space artists first, who in turned informed the public that Haumea had an ellipsoid shape. It got the attention because it is larger (size matters) and it has two moon.

Varuna is smaller and has no moons that we have detected. What both these worlds share is a geometric shape created by an abnormally fast rotation. Apparently in the universe, even the exceptions to the rule have their own rules.

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