Tag Archives: dwarf planet

The most remote object in the Solar System is now “Farfarout”, taking the crown from “Farout”

New research from the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab confirms: the most distant object in our Solar System is indeed “Farfarout”.

An illustration of Makemake, another planetoid in the solar system.

The name is not a typo. Back in 2018, the Subaru Telescope on Maunakea in Hawai’i discovered a stellar body moving through the solar system much farther away than anything ever seen before. We weren’t even able to determine how far, or where it was going, but we knew it was a long way away at the time. Based on its appearance (it was quite bright), the team assumed it was made of ice and probably around 250 miles (400 kilometers) in diameter, barely enough to be considered a dwarf planet.

In a bout of Internet humor that I can’t help but admire, they christened the body “Farfarout” and set to work on observing it further. We now have enough data to tell how far away it is and where it is going — Farfarout is now, appropriately, officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union as the farthest object in the Solar System.

A planet far far away

“At that time we did not know the object’s orbit as we only had the Subaru discovery observations over 24 hours, but it takes years of observations to get an object’s orbit around the Sun,” explained co-discoverer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

“All we knew was that the object appeared to be very distant at the time of discovery.”

Together with David Tholen of the University of Hawai’i and Chad Trujillo of Northern Arizona University, Sheppard spent the last few years tracking the object with the Gemini North telescope (also on Maunakea in Hawai’i) and the Magellan Telescopes in Chile to determine where Farfarout was going.

Since then, they have been able to confirm that Farfarout is currently at around 132 AU (astronomical units) from the Sun, meaning it’s 132 times farther from our star than the Earth. Pluto, for comparison, sits at around 39 AU on average away from the Sun. This makes Farfarout the most remote object to ever be discovered in the Solar System, dethroning the previous record-holder, “Farout” (previously designated 2018 VG18). You won’t be surprised to hear that Farout was discovered and named by the same team.

As far as the orbit of Farfarout is concerned, the team explains that it is quite elongated, taking it from between 175 AU to 27 AU (bringing it closer to the Sun than Neptune). This weird shape for an orbit can offer some clues as to the history of Farfarout and the solar system at large.

“Farfarout was likely thrown into the outer Solar System by getting too close to Neptune in the distant past,” said Trujillo. “Farfarout will likely interact with Neptune again in the future since their orbits still intersect.”

The IAU’s Minor Planet Center in Massachusetts has announced that it will give Farfarout the provisional designation 2018 AG37. Its official christening will take place after we learn more about it and its properties, although I do think the current nickname should stick. It’s only appropriate.

Still, all things must pass and Farfarout’s title of farthest-out object in the solar system might well be one of them. The team remains confident that even more distant objects remain to be discovered.

“Farfarout takes a millennium to go around the Sun once,” said Tholen. “Because of this, it moves very slowly across the sky, requiring several years of observations to precisely determine its trajectory.”

“The discovery of Farfarout shows our increasing ability to map the outer Solar System and observe farther and farther towards the fringes of our Solar System,” said Sheppard. “Only with the advancements in the last few years of large digital cameras on very large telescopes has it been possible to efficiently discover very distant objects like Farfarout.”

“Even though some of these distant objects are quite large — the size of dwarf planets — they are very faint because of their extreme distances from the Sun. Farfarout is just the tip of the iceberg of objects in the very distant Solar System.”

Meet Hygiea, the Smallest Dwarf Planet in Our Solar System

Around 2 billion years ago, two large rock bodies hit each other in the main asteroid belt, a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter populated by fragments of rocks of various sizes. The impactor, with a size ranging from 75 to 150 kilometers in diameter, hit a body at least 4 times larger. Astronomers have known about this impact for a long time because it created a whole family of asteroids in the main asteroid belt, formed by the celestial body Hygiea and almost 7,000 smaller asteroids that have similar orbits.

The new image of Hygiea obtained by SPHERE reveals its round shape, which makes Hygiea the smallest dwarf planet found to date. Credit: ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

Hygiea itself has been considered an asteroid since it was discovered in 1849 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. With a diameter just over 430 kilometers, it is the fourth-largest object in the main asteroid belt. New observations obtained with the Very Large Telescope (VLT), located in Chile and operated by the European Southern Observatory, have revealed that Hygiea is also round.

Determining the shape of Hygiea doesn’t have any practical implications for its orbit or behavior, but it’s enough to propel Hygiea from asteroid to dwarf planet, according to current scientific classifications.

There are four conditions that solar system objects must meet to be classified as dwarf planets: They must orbit the Sun, not be a satellite orbiting another body, not be massive enough to clear their orbit from other objects, and have a round shape due to their own gravity.

Fulfilling all the requirements makes Hygiea the smallest dwarf planet in the solar system, as researchers report in Nature Astronomy, taking the position from Ceres, which has a diameter of 950 kilometers. Pluto is the largest dwarf planet, with a diameter of 2,400 kilometers. For reference, our own Moon has a diameter of 3,474 kilometers, larger than any of the dwarf planets.

Observations with SPHERE

These new observations benefited from a new instrument, the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research instrument (SPHERE), installed in 2014 on one of the four 8.2-meter individual telescopes that form the VLT. SPHERE was designed to detect and study new giant exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, but it can also be used to observe small objects within our solar system with unprecedented resolution, as this study has shown.

“The revolution with SPHERE is that it works at the refraction limit of the telescope,” said Pierre Vernazza, an astronomer at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France and first author of the new study. “The combo of SPHERE and VLT is currently the most powerful imaging system in the world. Objects that were just a few pixels across before become really visible, and we can see craters that are just 30 kilometers in size and do geology from the ground thanks to this improvement.”

The team also showed that Hygiea rotates with a period of 13.8 hours, half the previously accepted value.

“It is solid work showing off amazing capabilities from Earth that we previously thought could only be possible from space,” said Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wasn’t involved in the study. “It is a combination of large telescope aperture, clever optical design, and high-speed computing to cancel out the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere, much like how noise-canceling headphones deliver a clear sound in the hubbub of an airport.”

A Smooth Surface Reveals a Violent Past

What really came as a surprise, Vernazza said, is that Hygiea’s surface is smooth, lacking signs of large impacts. Researchers were expecting to find some sort of a large impact basin, as is the case on the asteroid Vesta, which bears the mark of a massive impact on its south pole. Vesta also has its own family of asteroids, albeit smaller than Hygiea’s.

What Hygiea’s smooth surface reveals, according to the new study, is that the impact that created Hygiea was so powerful that it completely shattered its parent body. The fragments then coalesced again, assuming a round shape, and a fraction of the mass was ejected to form Hygiea’s asteroid family.

“Most of the mass was reaccreted to form Hygiea, and the reaccreting body behaves as a fluid during a few hours,” Vernazza said, “and that’s what allowed it to acquire a shape that is roughly spherical.”

To test this hypothesis, the team created a series of computer simulations that show that the most likely scenario involved a fast-traveling impactor between 75 and 150 kilometers in diameter and that the whole process probably took just a few hours to complete.

As telescopes keep improving and astronomers are able to observe more distant objects, the list of dwarf planets is sure to grow. “There are a lot of candidates among trans-Neptunian objects, and as far as we know, there are more than a hundred bodies with diameters above 400 kilometers, and for sure most of these bodies will be roughly spherical,” Vernazza said. To be able to obtain direct imaging observations of these bodies, equivalent to what the VLT has done with Hygiea, astronomers will have to wait until the next generation of 30- to 40-meter telescopes is available at some point within the next decade.

“We’re still in the reconnaissance phase of exploring our solar system,” Binzel said.

—Javier Barbuzano (@javibarbuzano), Freelance Science Journalist

This article was originally published on Eos and has been republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 license.

Proposed ‘geophysical definition’ re-instates Pluto as a planet — and adds 100 new ones in the Solar System

Pluto, along with a host of more than 100 other bodies in the Solar System should be planets, says Kirby Runyon from the John Hopkins University.

Pluto in its frozen beauty, captured by the New Horizons craft.
Image credits NASA.

Eleven years ago, the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto, who had done nothing wrong and just kept on orbiting as always, to the status of “non-planet”. Many people, scientists and laymen and I, cried bloody murder at the ruling — we had just lost one of the nine Solar planets. And we were not happy.

Kirby Runyon from the Johns Hopkins University would see justice returned to icy, tiny Pluto, and the debate about what a planet actually is finally settled. Runyon is the lead author of a paper making a case for re-instating Pluto as a planet which will be presented next week at a scientific conference in Texas. Even more, he says that a host of moons (including Europa and the Moon) and other bodies (like these guys here) in the Solar System should be planets, too.

What does a planet make

Back in the glory days, Pluto was the smallest of the nine recognized planets, with a diameter just under three-quarters of the Moon’s, and roughly one fifth of Earth’s. This small size eventually led the IAU to demote Pluto in 2006, but Runyon says it shouldn’t have been the case — Pluto “has everything going on on its surface that you associate with a planet. […] There’s nothing non-planet about it.”

Runyon, whose doctoral dissertation focuses on changing landscapes on the moon and Mars, led a team of six researchers from five institutions in drafting a proposed new definition of “planet”, and a justification for the new system of classification, which will be presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference’s poster session. The authors were all members of the science teams part of the New Horizons missions — the spacecraft became the first man-made object to fly by Pluto, and also captured the first close-up images of the former planet.

The one point that led to Pluto’s demotion was that the IAU standard required all planets and their satellites to move alone through their orbits — and Pluto is too tiny to completely accrete all the matter it passes by on its orbit. The other two criteria — that it orbits a star and is kept round by gravity — were met. Principal investigator for the New Horizons mission Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, has argued that the IAU definition also excluded Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune, which also share their orbits with asteroids, so if we demoted Pluto why not these four planets as well?

If it looks like a planet and quacks like a planet…

Charon, Pluto’s largest satellite, can also be considered a planet under the new system.

To settle the debate, the team argues that the qualities intrinsic to a celestial body should carry more weight than external factors (such as orbit) when deciding it if is a planet or not. They settled on the definition of a planet as being “a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion” and has enough gravitational pull to maintain a more-or-less round shape.

This geophysical definition goes against the grain of the three-element astronomical system the IAU currently employs in that it makes no reference to the body’s surroundings, so deciding if a planet is officially a planet should become much easier and immediately apparent under Runyon’s system. Most planetary scientists are also generally trained as geoscientists more than astrologists, so a geophysical definition might suit them better than the old classification.

This definition of a planet would certainly cast a wide net. While it isn’t extended to stars, black holes, asteroids, and meteorites, it does cover pretty much everything else in our solar system — the number of Solar planets would increase from eight to almost 110. And that whopping increase is actually a good thing, Runyon says, as he thinks it will engage the public in space exploration. The very word “planet” seems to carry a “psychological weight,” he adds, so more planets could help pique public curiosity and instill a yearning for exploration in people.

Io, Jupiter’s innermost satellite, would also become a planet.
Image credits NASA.

“I want the public to fall in love with planetary exploration as I have,” Runyon added. “It drives home the point of continued exploration.”

The team’s definition doesn’t require approval from a central governing body for scientists to start using it — in fact, it’s already been adopted by Planet Science Research Discoveries, an educational website founded by scientists at the University of Hawaii. If you’re one of those who feels the Solar System is the less for Pluto’s demotion, science says you can now have it back. Along with a hundred new members.

So what do you think of the new classification system? Is it a change for the better, a simplification of a cumbersome system — or complete and utter anarchy? Let us know in the comments.

The poster will be on view for a full day on March 21 at the conference sponsored by the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and Runyon will be on hand for at least three hours to answer questions about it according to Johns Hopkins University.

The other authors are Kelsi Singer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado; Tod Lauer of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona; Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; Michael Summers of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Scientists find new dwarf planet in our solar system

Astronomers have found a cosmic friend for Pluto.

An artist’s conception of the view from the dwarf planet Sedna. David Gerdes of the University of Michigan says the surface of 2014 UZ224 would look much the same.
NASA, ESA and Adolf Schaller

It’s bizarre to discover something new in our solar system. You’d think by now we’d know everything that lurks around, but we’re constantly reminded that this isn’t the case. This time, it’s another dwarf planet, similar in a way to Pluto – but what’s even more bizarre is how it was discovered.

The discovery started a few years ago when University of Michigan astronomer David Gerdes had some undergrads visiting him for the summer. As a summer project, he tasked them with finding bodies in our solar system by studying their projection on the galaxy. How is this done?

“Objects in the solar system, when you observe them at one instant and then a little while later, they appear to be in a different place in the sky,” Gerdes says.

Stars and galaxies far away are basically stationary – we don’t see them moving relative to our position. But something that’s nearby, in our solar system, you’ll see it pop up and down in different locations. Connect the dots and you’ll have the object’s orbit around the sun. Then you can understand its position. But Gerdes’ undergrads likely had other plans as well, because they didn’t take notations every night.

“We often just have a single observation of the thing, on one night,” he says. “And then two weeks later one observation, and then five nights later another observation, and four months later another observation. So the connecting-the-dots problem is much more challenging.”

So it took them a lot, but ultimately they pinpointed the location and size.

The dwarf planet called 2014 UZ224 measures about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across. It lies 8.5 billion miles (13.7 billion km) from the sun, NPR reported today. For comparison, Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, is about 750 miles (1,200 km) in diameter, and reaches a maximum distance of about 4.5 billion miles (7.3 billion km) away from the sun. So the new dwarf planet is much smaller, much farther away and much smaller than even Pluto’s moon.

Dwarf planets are a valued prize, but they’re not the ultimate prize. That would be the fabled “9th planet” – a theorized planet 10 times larger than the Earth, lurking on the outside of the solar system. Still, Gerdes says there’s a good chance his dwarf planet maps also contain an image of the planet – if it exists.

New dwarf planet discovered in outskirts of solar system beyond Neptune

Image credit Pixabay

Image credit Pixabay

A team of astronomers has discovered a new dwarf planet in the outskirts of our solar system beyond Neptune, joining the ranks of Pluto, Ceres and other celestial objects on the smaller end of the size spectrum. The planet – tentatively named 2015 RR245 – possesses one of the largest orbits among dwarf planets, orbiting the sun just once every 700 years.

“The icy worlds beyond Neptune trace how the giant planets formed and then moved out from the sun,” said Michele Bannister of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, who participated in the research. “They let us piece together the history of our solar system. But almost all of these icy worlds are painfully small and faint: It’s really exciting to find one that’s large and bright enough that we can study it in detail.”

The planet was first spotted in February earlier this year after the examination of images from the ongoing Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS) survey. Although its exact size is not yet known, the team believes that it falls into one of two broad categories: broad and shiny or large and dull.

Unlike most dwarf planets that were destroyed or ejected from our solar system to make way for larger planets, RR245 has survived until the present along with other large dwarf planets such as Pluto and Eris.

RR245 likely possesses unique geology composed of numerous kinds of frozen materials. However, as it has only been observed for one of the 700 years in its orbital period, further research will need to be conducted in order to reveal its exact landscapes and orbit.

“OSSOS was designed to map the orbital structure of the outer solar system to decipher its history,” said Brett Gladman, a professor from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who participated in the research along with Bannister. “While not designed to efficiently detect dwarf planets, we’re delighted to have found one on such an interesting orbit.”

RR245 is the largest planet to be discovered by the OSSOS and will likely be the last until the mid 2020s when other larger telescopes will begin their search for celestial bodies in the outer reaches of our solar system.

Welcome back to the family, Pluto!

Before you get overly excited, no, Pluto hasn’t been once again accepted as a planet – it’s still officially a dwarf planet (though in our hearts, you’ll always be a planet, Pluto!). However, this emblematic picture of the solar system from my childhood is now complete, as seen in this great family portrait produced by Ben Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Basically, we have at least the one good image of all the worlds in our solar system.

photo credit: Welcome to the family. Ben Gross/twitter, CC BY-SA

But as we celebrate New Horizon’s success and its retrieval of accurate Pluto images, it’s worth remembering that there are 50 years of work in this photo. The first ever accurate picture of another planet happened in 1962, when NASA’s Mariner 2 flew by Venus. Here’s a breakdown of how we got all these images:

  • Mercury: Mariner 10 (1973)
  • Venus: Mariner 2 (1962)
  • Mars: Mariner 4 (1965)
  • Jupiter: Pioneer 10 (1973)
  • Saturn: Pioneer 11 (1979)
  • Uranus: Voyager 2 (1985)
  • Neptune: Voyager 2 (1989)
  • Pluto: New Horizons (2015)

It took us 26 years to finally have Pluto! But science never sits still, no matter how strong some people try to stop it. When New Horizons left Earth in January 2006, Pluto was a planet – now it’s not, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. In fact, there are quite a few non-planets worth studying within our solar system. The Planetary Society’s Senior Editor, Emily Lakdawalla, has created this montage of the largest and most interesting asteroids, dwarf planets and moon.

Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. The Moon: Gari Arrillaga. Other data: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/SwRI/UCLA/MPS/IDA. Processing by Ted Stryk, Gordan Ugarkovic, Emily Lakdawalla, and Jason Perry.

Pluto across the years

Pluto likely hasn’t changed that much in recent years, but the way we see it has. It used to be just a few white pixels when it was discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh – a start contrast to the detailed image we have today. NASA twitted a short video with some of the best images we have of the dwarf planet:

Spectacular, isn’t it? But for me, a little something special still steals the show:

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft set for historic rendez-vous with Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has officially begun its six month approach to the planet Pluto. This is the first time a human shuttle will flyby the icy dwarf planet.

Artistic representation of New Horizons nearing Pluto. Image via Imgtec.

Pluto, the former planet, currently considered a dwarf planet (a plutoid) is still interesting for astronomers, but its distance from the Earth makes it difficult to study and analyze. The main theory is that Pluto’s structure is differentiated, with the rocky material having settled into a dense core surrounded by a mantle of ice; it’s very possible that Pluto actually harbors a liquid ocean of water between the rock and the ice.

The New Horizons shuttle is a NASA space probe launched to study the dwarf planet Pluto, its moons and anything else in the vicinity. Following a 3 billion mile trip, New Horizons has awaken from its hibernation and is now ready to start gathering data about Pluto.

“We’ve completed the longest journey any craft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring!” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, said in a NASA statement.

Indeed, the name New Horizons is a very fitting name. The mission will reveal information about a class of planets we have no direct observations of, and of which we know very little.

“New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before. For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them”, project leader Hal Weaver said.

New Horizons is well equipped for this mission – its scientific instruments include spectrometers (a Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera with a near-infrared imaging spectrometer, an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer and Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation), direct imagers, a dust analyzer and a radio science experiment. These instruments will gather continuous data on the interplanetary environment where the planetary system orbits,

We’ll keep you posted with developments and information as New Horizons sends it in.

This perspective view of Marcia crater on the giant asteroid Vesta shows the most spectacularly preserved example of "pitted terrain," an unexpected discovery in data returned by NASA's Dawn mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/JHUAPL

Hints of water found on the giant space rock Vesta

Two studies conducted by scientists at NASA based on data gathered by the Dawn spacecraft, which orbited around the Vesta asteroid, showed that the giant space rock holds tantalizing signs of water on its surface – albeit in very small amounts, in the form of hydrated minerals.

This perspective view of Marcia crater on the giant asteroid Vesta shows the most spectacularly preserved example of "pitted terrain," an unexpected discovery in data returned by NASA's Dawn mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/JHUAPL

This perspective view of Marcia crater on the giant asteroid Vesta shows the most spectacularly preserved example of “pitted terrain,” an unexpected discovery in data returned by NASA’s Dawn mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/JHUAPL

These conclusions were drawn after scientists found that volatile, or easily evaporated materials, have colored Vesta’s surface in a broad swath around its equator. Again, concerning its geometry,  peculiar pothole-like features mark some of the asteroid’s surface where the volatiles, likely water, released from hydrated minerals boiled off and eroded the rock. These formations have been found to be extremely similar to those on Mars, however while the planet is known to have been abundant  in water at a time; these feature identified on Vesta, an asteroid, took scientists particularly by surprise.

Again, no actual water was found, but scientists explain that due to the high energy release during collisions with other space rocks, the hydrogen bound to the minerals was converted into water, which instantly evaporated and thus geologically shaped the asteroid. The holes that were left as the water escaped stretch as much as 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) across and go down as deep as 700 feet (200 meters).

“The source of the hydrogen within Vesta’s surface appears to be hydrated minerals delivered by carbon-rich space rocks that collided with Vesta at speeds slow enough to preserve their volatile content,” said Thomas Prettyman, the lead scientist for Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz.

At first, the researchers hypothesized that it might be possible for ice water to survive on the surface of the asteroid, at its poles. However,  Vesta has no permanently shadowed polar regions where ice might survive, and is permanently exposed to sunlight in a cyclic fashion.

“These results provide evidence that not only were hydrated materials present, but they played an important role in shaping the asteroid’s geology and the surface we see today.”

The Dawn spacecraft left last month from Vesta’s orbit, which is the 2nd largest rock in the asteroid belt, and is currently heading for the dwarf planet of Ceres – the biggest rock in the asteroid belt.

The findings were described in two papers published in the journal Science.


Pluto gets a new moonand still isn’t a planet

All eyes seem to be pointed on Jupiter and Mars these days, with NASA probes being planned for both of them, and it’s easy to forget that there’s a spacecraft currently heading towards the edge of the solar system, aimed straight at Pluto at a speed of 80,000 kilometers per hour.

Even at this speed though, it will still take 4 more years before it gets there, so astronomers have been spying ahead with the Hubble telescope, in the attempt of finding anything that could damage or even destroy the shuttle. What they found was something nobody really expected – a new moon, not noticed by anyone else before.

Nicknamed P4, until it gets a real name, this new moon joins Charon, Nix and Hydra, but there’s a good reason why nobody noticed it so far. With a diameter varying somewhere between 13 and 33 km, it is all but impssible to see from Earth.

“We always knew it was possible there were more moons out there,” says Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and a co-discoverer of the new moon. “And lo and behold, there it was.”

It’s extremely unlikely that the new found Moon will have any impact on the mission. In the meantime, Pluto still maintains its status as a dwarf planet, much to the dismay of some. Showalter, on the other hand, doesn’t think it matters what you call Pluto.

“I don’t see dwarf planet as a demotion,” he says. “Think of bonsai trees. The fact that they’re so small is what makes them interesting. So if you don’t like the term dwarf planet, just think of Pluto as a bonsai planet.”

An illustration of dwarf planet Haumea and its two satellites. (c) SINC/José Antonio Peñas

Rugby-ball shaped dwarf planet covered in crystalline water ice

An illustration of dwarf planet Haumea and its two satellites. (c) SINC/José Antonio Peñas

Discovered deep in the farthest reaches of our solar system, Haumea is a tiny dwarf planet which has been fascinating scientists for years now since its discovery in 2004, not only because of its peculiar rugby-ball shaped form, but also because of its surface structure.

According to the European Southern Observatory, 75 per cent of its surface is covered with a reflective surface of water ice, but not just any ice – fresh, highly organized crystals instead of old, amorphous glass-like ice.

Since solar radiation constantly destroys the crystalline structure of ice on the surface, energy sources are required to keep it organised,’ said Benoit Carry, co-author of the study and a researcher at the ESAC Centre of the European Space Agency in Madrid.

‘The two that we have taken into consideration are that able to generate radiogenic elements (potassium-40, thorium-232 and uranium-238) from the inside, and the tidal forces between Haumea and its satellites (as seen between the Earth and the Moon)’ he told Spanish outlet SINC.

The finding was made using data captured by the Very Large Telescope in Chile, which Carry and other astronomers used and calculated that its surface ice is constantly replenished through heat/refreeze process that basically puts Maumea’s in a perpetual cycle of icy renewal.

Haumea is one-tenth the size of Earth and about 43 times farther from the sun, located beyond Pluto in the Kuiper belt. Remarkably, the dwarf planet named after the Hawaiian deity of fertility and childbirth has a rotation speed of less than four hours, one of the fastest in our solar system.

Its satellites Hi’iaka and Namaka, both also covered in ice and named after the goddess Haumea’s daughters, may have been formed by another object crashing into Haumea, with the same theoretical collision potentially responsible for the dwarf planet’s unusual shape.