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Back a couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article highlighting the debate between scientists on which dwarf planet is bigger, Pluto or Eris. During a planetary science conference earlier this month in France, word “leaked” out that Eris was still more massive, but likely smaller in diameter.
Today, the latest findings were published in Nature, and as such are now “official”. There’s also some additional information, so I’d like to revisit this topic and include some new details which may help answer the question:
Could Eris and Pluto actually be twins?
Before we answer the pressing question, let’s revisit my prior post at: http://www.universetoday.com/89901/pluto-or-eris-which-is-bigger/.
Bruno Sicardy of the Paris Observatory and his team calculated the diameter of Eris in 2010. The technique they used took advantage of an occultation between Eris and a faint background star. Sicardy’s results provided a diameter of 2,326 kilometers for Eris, slightly less than his 2009 estimate of Pluto’s diameter at 2,338 kilometers.
Combining the diameter estimate with mass estimates yielded a density estimate for Eris which suggests, and is supported by its extra mass, that its composition is far more rocky than Pluto, with Eris being only 10-15% ice by mass.
In this week’s announcement by the European Southern Observatory, additional information was presented which sheds new light on cold, distant Eris.
Regarding the new density estimates, Emmanuel Jehin, one of Sicardy’s team members mentions, “This density means that Eris is probably a large rocky body covered in a relatively thin mantle of ice”.
Further supporting Jehin’s assertion, The surface of Eris was found to be extremely reflective, (96% of the light that falls on Eris is reflected, making it nearly as reflective as a backyard telescope mirror). Based on the current estimate, Eris is more reflective than freshly fallen snow on Earth. Based on spectral analysis of Eris, its surface reflectivity is most likely due to a surface of nitrogen-rich ice and frozen methane. Some estimates place the thickness of this layer at less than one millimeter.
Jehin also added, “This layer of ice could result from the dwarf planet’s nitrogen or methane atmosphere condensing as frost onto its surface as it moves away from the Sun in its elongated orbit and into an increasingly cold environment. The ice could then turn back to gas as Eris approaches its closest point to the Sun, at a distance of about 5.7 billion kilometers.”
Based on the new information on surface composition and surface reflectivity, Sicardy and his team were able to make temperature estimates for Eris. The team estimates daytime temperatures on Eris of -238 C, and that temperatures on the night side of Eris would be much lower.
Sicardy concluded with, “It is extraordinary how much we can find out about a small and distant object such as Eris by watching it pass in front of a faint star, using relatively small telescopes. Five years after the creation of the new class of dwarf planets, we are finally really getting to know one of its founding members.”