Orbit of solar system object SQ372 (blue) compared with the orbits of Neptune Pluto and Sedna (white, green, red). Credit: N. Kaib.

Astronomers Find a New “Minor Planet” near Neptune

18 Aug , 2008 by

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Astronomers announced today that a new “minor planet” with an unusual orbit has been found just two billion miles from Earth, closer than Neptune. Using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, astronomers detected a small, comet-like object called 2006 SQ372, which is likely made of rock and ice. However, its orbit never brings it close enough to the sun for it to develop a tail. Its unusual orbit is an ellipse that is four times longer than it is wide, said University of Washington astronomer Andrew Becker, who led the discovery team. The only known object with a comparable orbit is Sedna — the distant, Pluto-like dwarf planet discovered in 2003. But 2006 SQ372’s orbit takes it more than one-and-a-half times further from the Sun, and its orbital period is nearly twice as long.

2006 SQ372 is beginning the return leg of a 22,500-year journey that will take it to a distance of 150 billion miles, nearly 1,600 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Scientists believe the object is only 50-100 kilometers (30-60 miles) across.

Click here for an animation showing the detection of SQ372 by SDSS.

Becker’s team was actually using the SDSS to look for supernova explosions billions of light-years away to measure the expansion of the universe. “If you can find things that explode, you can also find things that move, but you need different tools to look for them,” said team member Lynne Jones, also of the University of Washington. The only objects close enough to change position noticeably from one night to the next are in our own solar system, Jones explained.

The SDSS-II supernova survey scanned the same long stripe of sky, an area 1,000 times larger than the full moon, every clear night in the fall of 2005, 2006, and 2007.

SQ372 was first discovered in a series of images taken in 2006 by the SDSS, and were verified from images taken in 2005 and 2007.

The researcher team is trying to understand how the object acquired its unusual orbit. “It could have formed, like Pluto, in the belt of icy debris beyond Neptune, then been kicked to large distance by a gravitational encounter with Neptune or Uranus,” said UW graduate student Nathan Kaib. “However, we think it is more probable that SQ372 comes from the inner edge of the Oort Cloud.”

Even at its most distant turning point, 2006 SQ372 will be ten times closer to the Sun than the supposed main body of the Oort Cloud, said Kaib. “The existence of an ‘inner’ Oort cloud has been theoretically predicted for many years, but SQ372 and perhaps Sedna are the first objects we have found that seem to originate there. It’s exciting that we are beginning to verify these predictions.”

Becker noted that 2006 SQ372 was bright enough to find with the SDSS only because it is near its closest approach to the Sun, and that the SDSS-II supernova survey observed less than one percent of the sky.

“There are bound to be many more objects like this waiting to be discovered by the next generation of surveys, which will search to fainter levels and cover more area,” said Becker. “In a decade, we should know a lot more about this population than we do now.”

“One of our goals,” said Kaib, “is to understand the origin of comets, which are among the most spectacular celestial events. But the deeper goal is to look back into the early history of our solar system and piece together what was happening when the planets formed.”

The discovery of 2006 SQ372 was announced today in Chicago, at an international symposium about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. A paper describing the discovery technique and the properties of 2006 SQ372 is being prepared for submission to The Astrophysical Journal.

News Source: SDSS press release


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waldo
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waldo
August 18, 2008 3:41 PM

Hmm. More evidence that Neptune has not cleared out
its neigborhood.

Mike J
Guest
Mike J
August 18, 2008 9:50 AM

Wonder if it is cylindrical..

Unbeliever
Guest
Unbeliever
August 18, 2008 9:59 AM

this must be Nibiru, the doom planet. i bet i gets closest to earth in 2012, as predicted. yes, everything is going acording to plan

eric
Guest
eric
August 18, 2008 10:33 AM

actually they called Nibiru a sun and they just clearly said that this new minor planet is made out of rock and ice.

sps
Guest
sps
August 18, 2008 10:37 AM

Wonder if it is spherical.

Jon Hanford
Member
Jon Hanford
August 18, 2008 10:38 AM

Thanks again, Nancy, for a great article from the SDSS Symposium. Just imagine this object is thought to be from the ‘inner’ Oort Cloud & lucky enough to be near the sun to be detected by the SDSS. I can’t wait for more of these distant solar system bodies that will surely be found by upcoming deep all-sky surveys like LSST & PanStarrs.

Phobos
Member
Phobos
August 18, 2008 10:42 AM

I don’t remember what the minimum size of an object is for it to be spherical, but I think it’s around 400 km, so I doubt an object 50-100km will be.

wkdown
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wkdown
August 18, 2008 10:46 AM
Phobos
Member
Phobos
August 18, 2008 10:48 AM

Oh, sorry.

Just woke up.

gwhitton
Member
gwhitton
August 18, 2008 11:22 AM

“actually they called Nibiru a sun and they just clearly said that this new minor planet is made out of rock and ice.”

That is because they left out one important detail, its solid Plutonium core, which when it hits Saturn in 2012….well you get the picture.

Adam R
Guest
Adam R
August 18, 2008 12:42 PM

Harvesting comets in the Oort Cloud site.

For propulsion purposes! Well here is to the future!

Excalibur
Member
Excalibur
August 18, 2008 5:39 PM

Actually Neptune have cleared out its neighbourhood, as it contains the dominant mass of its entire region…

Earth are more in danger of being deemed not a planet than Neptune is, as it have not cleared out its region to more than a factor 81:1. There is some rocky thingy circling nearby and sometimes even blocks the sun…

Girls On You Tube
Guest
Girls On You Tube
August 19, 2008 1:47 AM

Wow this is really interesting, great article, thanks for sharing!

R2K
Guest
R2K
August 19, 2008 6:42 AM

“actually they called Nibiru a sun and they just clearly said that this new minor planet is made out of rock and ice.”

Or did they? Well yeah I guess so.

But isnt the sun made out of ice and rock?!?!

Well no I guess not.

But….. 2012!!!!

leah
Guest
leah
August 19, 2008 11:10 AM

Funny how all roads lead to 2012. Its written that a comet will herald the arrival of Niburu, weeks in advance.

Jorge
Guest
August 19, 2008 6:49 AM
Oh, for Pete’s sake! Pavel, *think*. Use whatever grey matter you have. Outer-system bodies have very long orbital times. Neptune takes 164 years to go around the sun once. All the other planets and minor bodies take longer than that, some much longer. With the exception of Pluto, we started discovering them only in the 1990s. Which ones would you think were discovered first? The larger ones, or the smaller ones? I’ll let you brood on that for a while. If your answer was the larger ones, you’re correct. Now, brood on this: which ones would you think were discovered first? The ones that, at the time of discovery, were closer to the Sun, or the ones that… Read more »
Sisyphus Fragment
Guest
August 19, 2008 7:30 AM

I admit I’m no astronomer, but wouldn’t that goofy of an orbit suggest that something is pulling SQ372 away from Sol? Causing the orbit to be so wide? Thank in advance to any replies.

Peter Brouwer
Guest
Peter Brouwer
August 19, 2008 8:26 AM

Pavel, people who throw statistics around are usually peabarians like yourself.
Get a life….

Fred Ledbetter
Guest
Fred Ledbetter
August 19, 2008 1:42 PM
Dear Pavel and the rest of you nerd geniuses; You speak way over everyone elses head and say so much but yet say nothing of any importance. What I do know is ; is that Helium is a gas in the Periodic Table after Hydrogen. It is not ApHelium or Perihelium. It is Perihelion and Aphelion. That little ball of ice and rock and frozen mud will be out there long after 500,000 generations have come and gone on the earth and then there might not be nothing to knock it out of it’s orbit and send it hurtling towards the earth or the sun. So much Sturm und Drang uber nicht. Get a life kidoes while you’re… Read more »
Jon Hanford
Member
Jon Hanford
August 19, 2008 11:08 AM
Jorge, thanks for the voice of reason. I felt I was having brain drain just reading Pavel’s post. Pavel, check out Kepler’s 3rd law of planetary motion (e.g. Wiki ‘Kepler’s laws of planetary motion’) for a start. Then, look up the inverse square law governing the apparent brightness of celestial objects. These 2 laws should be clear enough for high school students (or younger). Obviously we are just now finding objects in the Kuiper belt(the biggest & brightest first, naturally) Add to that we may be seeing the first Oort cloud objects( again, the biggest, brightest & nearest of the group) It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Why do you think Ceres was the first asteroid discovered… Read more »
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