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Astronomers Find a New “Minor Planet” near Neptune

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

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

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


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jorge August 19, 2008, 12:24 PM

    Pavel, for crying out loud!

    Some “bigger planetoids” aren’t close to the perihelia? Wow, ain’t that a treat! Of course, the fact that they are larger than the others and therefore would be the first to be discovered farther away is irrelevant. The fact that, by the very, very basic Kepler’s laws of orbital movements, bodies in elongated orbits spend a lot more time in the vicinity of the aphelia than during the comparatively fast passage in the perihelia doesn’t matter. The fact that, even so, about half the TNOs detected so far are close to the aphelia rings no bells in that head of yours. No, it’s all about the planet x idiocy. Actual facts are to be shuned; stupid theories based on crackpot numerology stemming from old fairy tales, now that’s what really matters, that’s were truth lies.

    Pavel, if you won’t do yourself the favor of actually using your brain, please refrain from treating the rest of us as retarded. We don’t appreciate it. If anything at all even remotely similar to the planet x happens in 2012, then you’re welcome to get back and call us all idiots, but until then, please close your trash bin. It stinks.

  • Jorge August 19, 2008, 1:19 PM

    Americans? Who’s american? There’s americans here? Where are they? Quick, quick, don’t let ’em get away!


  • Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum August 19, 2008, 8:27 PM

    Where are you? Your English grammatical mistakes lead me to think you’re in Russia, no? There’s a guy named Smutny in my astronomy club here in Virginia, probably no relation to you, though.

    Glad to have you here, really. However, the amateur & professional scientists who post here have little patience for mythology.

    2012 (as a year of doom) is a prime example of of a myth. It’s just gonna be another year (just like 2000). Nothing much will happen. Well, there will be a super cool radio telescope array called ALMA that will start science operations then, but nothing Earth-shattering will happen.

    Take your time, read all the astronomy (not astrology) books you can get your hands on. Here’s the start of a reading list:
    The Demon Haunted World – by Carl Sagan
    Bad Astronomy – by Phil Plait
    Cosmos – by Carl Sagan
    Death By Black Hole – by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

    Any of you others out there have any suggestions for reading material for Pavel and others?

  • 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 still young enough to enjoy it before you become an old fossil worrying about things you can’t do anything about. Jimmany Crickets!!!

  • Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum August 20, 2008, 7:42 AM

    I see now that you’re in Slovenská! I’m sure your English is far better than our Slovak! Not to worry, you’re doing great!

    I see now from your page http://hamops1.szm.sk/ that you’re a believer in (or at least interested in) “YGGDRASIL-THE WORLD-COSMIC TREE” and crop circles. These both are myths and are examples of the sort of nonsense that will earn you derision from the hard-headed reality-based scientists here.

    I expect you’ve heard all this before and are looking for more coincidences where the Yggdrasil myth appears to be true. This effort (if indeed this is what you’re doing) is doomed to failure. It might be a fun exercise but it is not science.

    This is a science blog and the posters here will not tolerate mythology for long.

    The sword of scientific truth is sharp and true. It is hard to wield, though, and non-scientists always pick it up by the blade and cut themselves. It’s hard work to pursue science but the effort is very rewarding. It takes a great deal of time and work and is not for everybody, but you are a smart guy and can handle it.

    Go to your local university and take some classes in astronomy and learn about the scientific method and how it is applied to the study of the natural world (and universe) around us. It is fascinating and will reward all who pursue it richly.
    Richard B. Drumm

  • Michael Welford August 20, 2008, 1:22 AM

    It’s interesting that they got the grad student to make the sensational inner Oort cloud claim. That way the whole team gets extra attention, but if they are challenged on orbital dynamics or if they are challenged to define exactly what they mean by “inner Oort cloud”, they have an expendable scapegoat to appease the critics.

    The irony is that a body scattered by Uranus into such an elongated orbit is really quite novelty enough.

  • Attila Gel August 20, 2008, 12:51 PM

    Stop predicting the end of the world already, and do something to save it, cause the only thing for sertain that is dooming this world is the humans that lives on it.

    Heres simple math

    Theorizing and guessing doomsday possibilleties + sharing it with others = stupid and useless outcomes

    Theorizing and researching possible solutions to save the world + shearing with others = interesting and usefull outcomes

  • Bill August 20, 2008, 2:14 PM

    “…Its orbit never brings it close enough to the sun for it to develop a tail.” Why do astronomers still insist that comets or comet-like objects have to be close to the sun to have tails? Comet Holmes, sadly out of the news, has been heading away from the sun with an increasing coma that is many times the diameter of the sun. Other trans-saturnian comets exhibit activity.

  • Ronnie August 20, 2008, 4:54 PM

    who cares if this 2012 thing is going to happen. Everyone just chillax because theres nothing we can do about theses disasters esspecially the man-made ones like global warming. The reason why i say that is because people are always assuming the person next to them will clean it up and so on and so forth

  • eric August 20, 2008, 9:31 PM

    “2012 (as a year of doom) is a prime example of of a myth. It’s just gonna be another year (just like 2000). Nothing much will happen. Well, there will be a super cool radio telescope array called ALMA that will start science operations then, but nothing Earth-shattering will happen.”

    as for 2012 i believe wut that says. its just gonna be another Y2K incident. i heard about the ALMA on some magazine at skool it looked pretty awesome.

    plus wut i dont get is the fact that y does ppl still believe in that stupid doomsday myth when scientists already proved that nothing will happen and y would they plan to cure cancer by 2014 and start another moon mission on 2020? ever thought of that?

    and pavel ur just an idiot thats trying to get attention. hell i bet u spread the Y2K incident to ur friends and were one of the dumasses hiding in bomb shelters or hiding in trailers with a crap load of water. hell i was only about 10 at the time and i was partying it up

  • alokmohan August 21, 2008, 3:34 AM

    Add minor planet a day.

  • Paul Eaton-Jones September 3, 2008, 12:57 AM

    As I’ve posted previously, can we have a special page for cranks like Pavel that by-passes the main page? An immediate indicator of cranks, conspiracy theorists etc is the use or over use of exclamations marks. I’m afraid I now close an article when I come across posting such as Pavel’s and his like. A responsible, adult site such as this deserves better. Tragic really.

  • e.m.smith September 7, 2008, 2:40 AM

    In 2012 there is one interesting alignment (sun with center of galaxy) that most likely signifies nothing. (Most of the travel to this alignment from the ‘above/below the plane’ position has already happened and No Bad Thing came of it…) It’s a nice place to start a calendar cycle though. (The only mystery here is how the Maya knew about it…)

    Also in 2012 there ought to be the peak of solar cycle 24 (if it ever starts…) If this is, as presently looks to be the case, a very weak cycle, then the fall from the 2012 “peak” ought to happen along with a plunge of global temperatures down into something like a Dalton Minimum (i.e. Very cold winters and summers with poor crops and cool conditions).

    Unfortunately for the ‘end of life as we know it’ 2012 doom and gloomers, there is about a 2 year lag between solar drop and temperature drop due to thermal lag in the oceans et.al. So even if this were a calamity it would not hit hard until 2014. So much for Mayan doom in 2012.

    Pavel: American scientists, as with most others, are required to study a lot of non-science to graduate. Social sciences including history. Many of them read history just for fun too. (I’m fond of my Marcus Aurelius and have a wonderful old copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The style of the old writers is something to revel in.) That does not mean they are enamored of your pet theories. Do not assert ignorance when all that is evidenced is disagreement.

    In particular, the guys who invented crop circles have admitted it. They even made a film showing how to do it in the dead of night and had crop circle “experts” come out who then were completely convinced these were of e.t. origin. Anyone who still thinks crop circles are anything other than a good hoax is deluded and does not know their history. The list goes on.

    Now there may well be some decent information hidden in old myths and legends, but they are a very unreliable source. Do you believe in leprechauns? How do you separate their myth from the ones you do believe in? It isn’t via science.

    I personally believe that the old Sumerian writings have a (possibly distorted) record of the creation of man via a genetic manipulation by a space visitor. I can’t say if there is truth in that story or if it is just really exceptional ‘science fiction’ that would be astounding for it’s age. Nor can anyone else. There is not sufficient data to decide. You can have an opinion, but not a decided answer.

    The point? You need to learn to enjoy the old stories as stories and maybe even accept that they might have a grain of truth in them somewhere but NOT swallow them whole as gospel.

    In science each information source is weighted as to it’s veracity and probability. Please realize that de-weighting very old (near mythological) sources is a normal and expected result of their age and lack of supportive evidence. No mater where the scientist was born, raised, or educated.

    An example? For years the notion of an ‘evil star’ (literally a disaster) was held to be mythical, and in school the fear of comets was held up to ridicule. But it still was a good ‘story’ that eventually led to folks realizing that comets could hit the earth, and did hit the earth. The science caught up with the legend. BUT it would still have been wrong to have just asserted the legend was true until there was outside evidence to confirm it.

    Enjoy the legends. Use them as source material for finding ideas to research or test. Don’t assert they prove anything until you have verifiable confirmatory evidence. So planet X? Interesting theory and the stuff of legends. NOT a reality until someone spots it in a telescope. Maybe it really is there, headed for earth; but you can’t KNOW that until there is physical evidence to show it exists. Legends are the hypothesis, not the experiment nor the result and certainly not the conclusion.

    I expect we will be finding a whole zoo of things toward the Oort cloud now that we are looking. Don’t leap to conclusions as to what they are or you will be blind as to their real nature.

  • venus lover 101 November 20, 2008, 10:39 PM

    I wonder if you have yet stepped into you oblivion of ablsolute ignorancy! wow cynderlism is not even equal to your

    MOM haha stupid if you read this!