It isn’t every day we get a new moon added to the list of solar system satellites. The combined observational power of three observatories — Kepler, Herschel and Hubble — led an astronomical detective tale to its climatic conclusion: distant Kuiper Belt Object 2007 OR10has a tiny moon.
The dwarf planet itself is an enigma wrapped in a mystery: with a long orbit taking it out to a distant aphelion 101 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, back into the environs of Neptune and Pluto for a perihelion 33 AU from the Sun once every 549 years, 2007 OR10 was discovered by Caltech astronomers Megan Schwamb and Mike Brown in 2007. Nicknamed “Snow White” by Mike Brown for its presumed high albedo, 2007 OR10 was 85 AU distant in the constellation Aquarius at the time of discovery and outbound towards aphelion in 2135. 2007 OR10 is about 1,500 kilometers in diameter, the third largest body known beyond Neptune in our solar system next to Pluto and Eris (nee Xena).
Enter the Kepler Space Telescope, which imaged 2007 OR10 crossing the constellation Aquarius as part of its extended K2 exoplanet survey along the ecliptic plane. Though Kepler looks for transiting exoplanets — worlds around other stars that betray their presence by tiny dips in the brightness of their host as they pass along our line of sight — it also picks up lots of other things that flicker, including variable stars and distant Kuiper Belt Objects. But the slow 45 hour rotational period of 2007 OR10 noted by Kepler immediately grabbed astronomers interest: could an unseen moon be lurking nearby, dragging on the KBO like a car brake?
“Typical rotation periods for Kuiper Belt Objects are under 24 hours,” says Csaba Kiss (Konkoly Observatory) in a recent press release. “We looked in the Hubble archive because the slower rotation period could have been caused by the gravitational tug of a moon.”
And sure enough, digging back through archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope taken during a survey of KBOs, astronomers turned up two images of the faint moon from 2009 and 2010. Infrared observations of 2007 OR10 and its moon by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Telescope cinched the discovery, and noted an albedo of 19% (similar to wet sand) for 2007 OR10, much darker than expected. The moon is about 200 miles (320 kilometers) in diameter, in a roughly 9,300 mile (15,000 kilometer) orbit.
The discovery was announced at an AAS meeting just last year, and even now, we’re still puzzling out what little we know about these distant worlds. Just what 2007 OR10 and its moon looks like is any guess. New Horizons gave us our first look at Pluto and Charon two short summers ago in 2015, and will give us a fleeting glimpse of 2014 MU69 on New Year’s Day 2019. All of these objects beg for proper names, especially pre-2019 New Horizons flyby.
What would the skies from the tiny moon look like? Well, ancient 2007 OR10 must loom large in its sky, though Sol would only shine as a bright -15th magnitude star, (a little brighter than a Full Moon) its illumination dimmed down to 1/7,000th the brightness enjoyed here on sunny Earth, which would be lost in its glare.
And looking at the strange elliptical orbits of these outer worldlets, we can only surmise that something else must be out there. Will the discovery of Planet 9 be made before the close of the decade?
One thing’s for sure: this isn’t your parent’s tidy solar system with “Excellent Mothers” serving “Nine Pizzas.”
Depending on shifting definitions of what exactly is or isn’t a dwarf planet, our Solar System has about half a dozen dwarf planets. They are: Pluto, Eris, Haumea, Makemake, Ceres, and 2007 OR10.
Even though 2007 OR10’s name makes it stand out from the rest, dwarf planets as a group are an odd bunch. They spend their time in the cold, outer reaches of the Solar System, with Ceres being the only exception. Ceres resides in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Their distance from Earth makes them difficult targets for observation, even with the largest telescopes we have. Even the keen eye of the Hubble Telescope, orbiting above Earth’s view-inhibiting atmosphere, struggles to get a good look at the dwarf planets. But astronomers using the Kepler spacecraft discovered that its extreme light sensitivity have made it a useful tool to study the dwarves.
In a paper published in The Astronomical Journal, a team led by Andras Pal, at Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, have refined the measurement of 2007 OR10. Using the Kepler’s observational prowess, and combining it with archival data from the Herschel Space Observatory, the team has come up with a much more detailed understanding of 2007 OR10.
Previously, 2007 OR10 was thought to be about 1280 km (795 miles) in diameter. But the problem is the dwarf planet was only a faint, tiny, and distant point of light. Astronomers knew it was there, but didn’t know much else. Objects as far away as 2007 OR10, which is currently twice as far away from the Sun as Pluto is, can either be small, bright objects, or much larger, dimmer objects that reflect less light.
This is where the Kepler came in. It has exquisite sensitivity to tiny changes in light. Its whole mission is built around that sensitivity. It’s what has made Kepler such an effective tool for identifying exo-planets. Pointing it towards a tiny target like 2007 OR10, and monitoring the reflected light as the object rotates, is a logical use for Kepler.
Even so, Kepler alone wasn’t able to give the team a thorough understanding of the dwarf planet with the clumsy name.
Enter the Herschel Space Observatory, a powerful infrared space telescope. Herschel and its 3.5 metre (11.5 ft.) mirror were in operation at LaGrange 2 from 2009 to 2013. Herschel discovered many things in its mission-span, including solid evidence for comets being the source of water for planets, including Earth.
But the Herschel Observatory also bequeathed an enormous archive of data to astronomers and other space scientists. And that data was crucial to the new measurement of 2007 OR10.
Combining data and observations from multiple sources is not uncommon, and is often the only way to learn much about distant, tiny objects. In this case, the two telescopes were together able to determine the amount of sunlight reflected by the dwarf planet, using Kepler’s light sensitivity, and then measure the amount of that light later radiated back as heat, using Herschel’s infrared capabilities.
Combining those datasets gave a much clearer idea of the size, and reflectivity, of 2007 OR10. In this case, the team behind the new paper was able to determine that 2007 OR10 was significantly larger than previously thought. It’s measured size is now 1535 km (955 mi) in diameter. This is 255 km (160 mi) larger than previously measured.
It also tells us that the dwarf planet’s gravity is stronger, and the surface darker, than previously measured. This further cements the oddball status of 2007 OR10, since other dwarf planets are much brighter. Other observations of the planet have shown that is has a reddish color, which could be the result of methane ice on the surface.
Lead researcher Andras Pal said, “Our revised larger size for 2007 OR10 makes it increasingly likely the planet is covered in volatile ices of methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen, which would be easily lost to space by a smaller object. It’s thrilling to tease out details like this about a distant, new world — especially since it has such an exceptionally dark and reddish surface for its size.”
Now that more is known about 2007 OR10, perhaps its time it was given a better name, something that’s easier to remember and that helps it fit in with its peer planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. According to convention, the honor of naming it goes to the planet’s discoverers, Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown and David Rabinowitz. They discovered it in 2007 during a search for distant bodies in the Solar System.
According to Schwamb, “The names of Pluto-sized bodies each tell a story about the characteristics of their respective objects. In the past, we haven’t known enough about 2007 OR10 to give it a name that would do it justice. I think we’re coming to a point where we can give 2007 OR10 its rightful name.”
The Universe is vast, and we need some numbered, structured way to name everything. And these names have to mean something scientifically. That’s why objects end up with names like 2007 OR10, or SDSS J0100+2802, the name given to a distant, ancient quasar. But objects closer to home, and certainly everything in our Solar System, deserves a more memory-friendly name.
So what’s it going to be? If you think you have a great name for the oddball dwarf named 2007 OR10, let us hear it in a tweet, or in the comments section.
Over the course of the past decade, more and more objects have been discovered within the Trans-Neptunian region. With every new find, we have learned more about the history of our Solar System and the mysteries it holds. At the same time, these finds have forced astronomers to reexamine astronomical conventions that have been in place for decades.
Consider 2007 OR10, a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) located within the scattered disc that at one time went by the nicknames of “the seventh dwarf” and “Snow White”. Approximately the same size as Haumea, it is believed to be a dwarf planet, and is currently the largest object in the Solar System that does not have a name.
Discovery and Naming:
2007 OR10 was discovered in 2007 by Meg Schwamb, a PhD candidate at Caltech and a graduate student of Michael Brown, while working out of the Palomar Observatory. The object was colloquially referred to as the “seventh dwarf” (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) since it was the seventh object to be discovered by Brown’s team (after Quaoar in 2002, Sedna in 2003, Haumea and Orcus in 2004, and Makemake and Eris in 2005).
At the time of its discovery, the object appeared to be very large and very white, which led to Brown giving it the other nickname of “Snow White”. However, subsequent observation has revealed that the planet is actually one of the reddest in the Kuiper Belt, comparable only to Haumea. As a result, the nickname was dropped and the object is still designated as 2007 OR10.
The discovery of 2007 OR10 would not be formally announced until January 7th, 2009.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
A study published in 2011 by Brown – in collaboration with A.J. Burgasser (University of California San Diego) and W.C. Fraser (MIT) – 2007 OR10’s diameter was estimated to be between 1000-1500 km. These estimates were based on photometry data obtained in 2010 using the Magellan Baade Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and from spectral data obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope.
However, a survey conducted in 2012 by Pablo Santos Sanz et al. of the Trans-Neptunian region produced an estimate of 1280±210 km based on the object’s size, albedo, and thermal properties. Combined with its absolute magnitude and albedo, 2007 OR10 is the largest unnamed object and the fifth brightest TNO in the Solar System. No estimates of its mass have been made as of yet.
2007 OR10 also has a highly eccentric orbit (0.5058) with an inclination of 30.9376°. What this means is that at perihelion, it is roughly 33 AU (4.9 x 109 km/30.67 x 109 mi) from our Sun while at aphelion, it is as distant as 100.66 AU (1.5 x 1010 km/9.36 x 1010 mi). It also has an orbital period of 546.6 years, which means that the last time it was at perihelion was 1857 and it won’t reach aphelion until 2130. As such, it is currently the second-farthest known large body in the Solar System, and will be farther out than both Sedna and Eris by 2045.
According to the spectral data obtained by Brown, Burgasser and Fraser, 2007 OR10 shows infrared signatures for both water ice and methane, which indicates that it is likely similar in composition to Quaoar. Concurrent with this, the reddish appearance of 2007 OR10 is believed to be due to presence of tholins in the surface ice, which are caused by the irradiation of methane by ultraviolet radiation.
The presence of red methane frost on the surfaces of both 2007 OR10 and Quaoar is also seen as an indication of the possible existence of a tenuous methane atmosphere, which would slowly evaporate into space when the objects are closer to the Sun. Although 2007 OR10 comes closer to the Sun than Quaoar, and is thus warm enough that a methane atmosphere should evaporate, its larger mass makes retention of an atmosphere just possible.
Also, the presence of water ice on the surface is believed to imply that the object underwent a brief period of cryovolcanism in its distant past. According to Brown, this period would have been responsible not only for water ice freezing on the surface, but for the creation of an atmosphere that included nitrogen and carbon monoxide. These would have been depleted rather quickly, and a tenuous atmosphere of methane would be all that remains today.
However, more data is required before astronomers can say for sure whether or not 2007 OR10 has an atmosphere, a history of cryovolcanism, and what its interior looks like. Like other KBOs, it is possible that it is differentiated between a mantle of ices and a rocky core. Assuming that there is sufficient antifreeze, or due to the decay of radioactive elements, there may even be a liquid-water ocean at the core-mantle boundary.
Though it is too difficult to resolve 2007 OR10’s size based on direct observation, based on calculations of 2007 OR10’s albedo and absolute magnitude, many astronomers believe it to be of sufficient size to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. As Brown stated in 2011, 2007 OR10 “must be a dwarf planet even if predominantly rocky”, which is based on a minimum possible diameter of 552 km and what is believed to be the conditions under which hydrostatic equilibrium occurs in cold icy-rock bodies.
That same year, Scott S. Sheppard and his team (which included Chad Trujillo) conducted a survey of bright KBOs (including 2007 OR10) using the Palomar Observatory’s 48 inch Schmidt telescope. According to their findings, they determined that “[a]ssuming moderate albedos, several of the new discoveries from this survey could be in hydrostatic equilibrium and thus could be considered dwarf planets.”
Currently, nothing is known of 2007 OR10’s mass, which is a major factor when determining if a body has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. This is due in part to there being no known satellite(s) in orbit of the object, which in turn is a major factor in determining the mass of a system. Meanwhile, the IAU has not addressed the possibility of accepting additional dwarf planets since before the discovery of 2007 OR10 was announced.
Alas, much remains to be learned about 2007 OR10. Much like it’s Trans-Neptunian neighbors and fellow KBOs, a lot will depend on future missions and observations being able to learn more about its size, mass, composition, and whether or not it has any satellites. However, given its extreme distance and fact that it is currently moving further and further away, opportunities to observe and explore it via flybys will be limited.
However, if all goes well, this potential dwarf planet could be joining the ranks of such bodies as Pluto, Eris, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake in the not-too-distant future. And with luck, it will be given a name that actually sticks!