Thanks, Comet Pluto. Solar System Nomenclature Needs A Major Rethink

New Horizon's July 2015 flyby of Pluto captured this iconic image of the heart-shaped region called Tombaugh Regio. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Pluto can’t seem to catch a break lately. After being reclassified in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, it seemed that what had been the 9th planet of the Solar System was now relegated to the status of “dwarf planet” with the likes of Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. Then came the recent announcements that the title of “Planet 9” may belong to an object ten times the mass of Earth located 700 AU from our Sun.

And now, new research has been produced that indicates that Pluto may need to be reclassified again. Using data provided by the New Horizons mission, researchers have shown that Pluto’s interaction with the Sun’s solar wind is unlike anything observed in the Solar System thus far. As a result, it would seem that the debate over how to classify Pluto, and indeed all astronomical bodies, is not yet over.

Continue reading “Thanks, Comet Pluto. Solar System Nomenclature Needs A Major Rethink”

How Do We Terraform Ceres?

A view of Ceres in natural colour, pictured by the Dawn spacecraft in May 2015. Credit: NASA/ JPL/Planetary Society/Justin Cowart

We continue our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming” series with a look at another body in our Solar System – the dwarf planet Ceres. Like many moons in the outer Solar System, Ceres is a world of ice and rock, and is the largest body in the Asteroid Belt. Humans beings could one day call it home, but could its surface also be made “Earth-like”?

In the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt, there are literally millions of celestial bodies to be found. And while the majority of these range in size from tiny rocks to planetesimals, there are also a handful of bodies that contain a significant percentage of the mass of the entire Asteroid Belt. Of these, the dwarf planet Ceres is the largest, constituting of about a third of the mass of the belt and being the sixth-largest body in the inner Solar System by mass and volume.

In addition to its size, Ceres is the only body in the Asteroid Belt that has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium – a state where an object becomes rounded by the force of its own gravity. On top of all that, it is believed that this dwarf planet has an interior ocean, one which contains about one-tenth of all the water found in the Earth’s oceans. For this reason, the idea of colonizing Ceres someday has some appeal, as well as terraforming.

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Ceres?”

The Bright Spots on Ceres are Blinking

Bright reflective material in Ceres' Occator crater, imaged by NASA's Dawn spacecraft in Sept .2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

All right, maybe not blinking like a flashlight (or a beacon on the tippity-top of a communication tower—don’t even start that speculation up) but the now-famous “bright spots” on the dwarf planet Ceres have been observed to detectably increase and decrease in brightness, if ever-so-slightly.

And what’s particularly interesting is that these observations were made not by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, currently in orbit around Ceres, but from a telescope right here on Earth.

Researchers using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument on ESO’s 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla detected “unexpected” changes in the brightness of Ceres during observations in July and August of 2015. Variations in line with Ceres’ 9-hour rotational period—specifically a Doppler effect in spectral wavelength created by the motion of the bright spots toward or away from Earth—were expected, but other fluctuations in brightness were also detected.

“The result was a surprise,” said Antonino Lanza from the INAF–Catania Astrophysical Observatory, co-author of the study. “We did find the expected changes to the spectrum from the rotation of Ceres, but with considerable other variations from night to night.”

Watch a video below illustrating the rotation of Ceres and how reflected light from the bright spots within Occator crater are alternately blue- and red-shifted according to the motion relative to Earth.

First observed with Hubble in December 2003, Ceres’ curious bright spots were resolved by Dawn’s cameras to be a cluster of separate regions clustered inside the 60-mile (90-km) -wide Occator crater. Based on Dawn data they are composed of some type of highly-reflective materials like salt and ice, although the exact composition or method of formation isn’t yet known.

Since they are made of such volatile materials though, interaction with solar radiation is likely the cause of the observed daily brightening. As the deposits heat up during the course of the 4.5-hour Ceres daytime they may create hazes and plumes of reflective particles.

“It has been noted that the spots appear bright at dawn on Ceres while they seem to fade by dusk,” noted study lead author Paolo Molaro in the team’s paper. “That could mean that sunlight plays an important role, for instance by heating up ice just beneath the surface and causing it to blast off some kind of plume or other feature.”

Once day turns to night these hazes will re-freeze, depositing the particles back down to the surface—although never in exactly the same way. These slight differences in evaporation and condensation could explain the random variation in daily brightening observed with HARPS.

These findings have been published the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (full text on arXiv here.)

Source: ESO

10 Interesting Facts About Neptune

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

Neptune is a truly fascinating world. But as it is, there is much that people don’t know about it. Perhaps it is because Neptune is the most distant planet from our Sun, or because so few exploratory missions have ventured that far out into our Solar System. But regardless of the reason, Neptune is a gas (and ice) giant that is full of wonder!

Below, we have compiled a list of 10 interesting facts about this planet. Some of them, you might already know. But others are sure to surprise and maybe even astound you. Enjoy!

Continue reading “10 Interesting Facts About Neptune”

New Dwarf Planet is Most Distant Object Yet Observed in our Solar System

A newly found object named V774104 was found using the Subaru Telescope. Credit: Scott Sheppard, Chad Trujillo, and David Tholen.

It has been estimated that there may be hundreds of dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt and Oort Cloud of the outer Solar System. So far we’ve found – and actually seen – just a few. This past week, one more dwarf planet was added to the list and comes in at the most distant object ever seen in the Solar System.

This newly found world, initially named V774104, is about 15.4 billion kilometers from the Sun. At 103 AU, it is three times further from the Sun than Pluto, and is more distant than the previous record holder, Eris, which lies at 97 AU.

The discovery of V774104 was announced by one of the astronomers who found the object, Scott Sheppard, from the Carnegie Institution for Science, at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences fall meeting last week. Sheppard, along with Chad Trujillo and David Tholen used Japan’s 8-meter Subaru Telescope in Hawaii to make the find.

Astronomers say this newly spotted dwarf planet shows the depths of our Solar System.

“The discovery of V774104 is more proof that the Solar System is bigger than we thought,” said astronomer Joseph Burns from Cornell University, who was not associated with the discovery. “We need a little more time to pin down the orbit and determine the object’s exact size, but it must be big to see it at this distance.”

The size of V774104 is currently estimated to be between 500 and 1000 kilometers in diameter, which is less than half Pluto’s size.

While the size of the object is of some interest to astronomers who are searching for KBOs, even more interesting is pinning down its orbit. With its recent discovery, the orbit of V774104 has yet to be tracked for long periods of time.

If the orbit of V774104 comes closer to the Sun, such as between 30 to 50 AU, then it would be considered an icy Kuiper Belt objects which are more common among bodies like this found so far. Their orbits are more elongated because they fall under the gravitational influence of Neptune.

Of even more interest are what Sheppard called “inner Oort Cloud objects,” (also called “sednoids”). Theses bodies exist in a part of the Solar System that astronomers used to think was fairy empty. Of the two previously observed objects in this class — Sedna and 2012 VP113. — their orbits never come closer to the Sun than 50 AU, and they have a semi-major axis greater than 150 AU. The eccentric orbits of these objects have yet to be explained.

Colin Johnston from the Armagh Planetarium clarifies:

This means at their closest to the Sun they are still beyond the Kuiper Belt which lies 30-50 au from the Sun. Only two other objects in this category are known: 90377 Sedna and 2012 VP113.

They intrigue astronomers as they inhabit what was expected to be a largely empty region between the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, the Solar System’s yet to observed reservoir of comets. As well, the current highly elliptical orbits of Sednoids cannot be their original orbits, the chance of smaller bodies in such eccentric paths accreting into objects hundreds of kilometres across is fantastically low. Sednoids must have originally formed in relatively circular orbits, possibly in the Oort Cloud.

“Non-eccentric orbits seem to be the anomaly here,” Burns told Universe Today.

So, this likely means that something other than the Sun is responsible for influencing the erratic orbits of such small objects like V774104. One theory is that there might be a large planet at the outer reaches of the Solar System influencing the orbits of these distant objects.

Of course, among some crowds that brings up the hypothetical Planet X. But Burns was quick to dismiss that idea.

“While we certainly don’t understand well these objects, we may want to scatter off an object like Planet X,” he said via email.

At the AAS meeting last week, Sheppard said the likely alternative is that the orbits of these objects might reflect the primordial conditions of the Solar System, which formed more than 4.5 billion years ago. This makes them even more enticing for study, and Sheppard and his team will be keeping a close eye on V774104 to try and learn more. Nature News reported that the team plans to look for it again this week using the Magellan Telescopes in Chile, and then again in a year, to calculate its orbit and determine whether if it is an inner Oort cloud resident or an icy Kuiper Belt object.

Further reading: Nature, Armagh Planetarium,Centauri Dreams, Science.

The (Possible) Dwarf Planet 2007 OR10

An artist's conception of 2007 OR10, nicknamed Snow White. Astronomers suspect that its rosy color is due to the presence of irradiated methane. [Credit: NASA]

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).

Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon
Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon

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!

We have many interesting articles on Dwarf Planets, the Kuiper Belt, and Plutoids here at Universe Today. Here’s Why Pluto is no longer a planet and how astronomers are predicting Two More Large Planets in the outer Solar System.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode all about Dwarf Planets titled, Episode 194: Dwarf Planets.

For more information, check out the NASA’s Solar System Overview: Dwarf Planets, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Small-Body Database, as well as Mike Browns Planets.


The Dwarf Planet Orcus

Artist's impression of the Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) 90482 Orcus. Credit: NASA

Since the early 2000s, more and more objects have been discovered in the outer Solar System that resemble planets. However, until they are officially classified, the terms Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) and Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) are commonly used. This is certainly true of Orcus, another large object that was spotted in Pluto’s neighborhood about a decade ago.

Although similar in size and orbital characteristics to Pluto, Orcus is Pluto’s opposite in many ways. For this reason, Orcus is often referred to as the “anti-Pluto”, a fact that contributed greatly to the selection of its name. Although Orcus has not yet been officially categorized as a dwarf planet by the IAU, many astronomers agree that it meets all the requirements and will be in the future.

Discovery and Naming:
Orcus was discovered on February 17th, 2004, by Michael Brown of Caltech, Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory, and David Rabinowitz of Yale University. Although discovered using images that were taken in 2004, prerecovery images of Orcus have been identified going back as far as November 8th, 1951.

Provisionally known as 90482 2004 DW, by November 22nd, 2004, the name Orcus was assigned. In accordance with the IAU’s astronomical conventions, objects with a similar size and orbit to that of Pluto are to be named after underworld deities. Therefore, the discovery team suggested the name Orcus, after the Etruscan god of the underworld and the equivalent of the Roman god Pluto.

90482 Orcus. The location of Orcus is shown in the green circle (top, left). Credit: NASA
90482 Orcus. The location of Orcus is shown in the green circle (top, left). Credit: NASA

Size, Mass and Orbit:
Given its distance, estimates of Orcus’ diameter and mass have varied over time. In 2008, observations made using the Spitzer Space Telescope in the far infrared placed its diameter at 958.4 ± 22.9 km. Subsequent observations made in 2013 using the Herschel Space Telescope at submillimeter wavelengths led to similar estimates being made.

In addition, Orcus appears to have an albedo of about 21% to 25%, which may be typical of trans-Neptunian objects approaching the 1000 km diameter range. However, these estimates were based on the assumption that Orcus was a singular object and not part of a system. The discovery of the relatively large satellite Vanth (see below) in 2007 by Brown et al. is likely to change these considerably.

The absolute magnitude of Vanth is estimated to be 4.88, which means that it is about 11 times fainter than Orcus itself. If the albedos of both bodies are the same at 0.23, then the diameter of Orcus would be closer to 892 -942 km, while Vanth would measure about 260 -293 km.

In terms of mass, the Orcus system is estimated to be 6.32 ± 0.05 ×1020 kg, which is about 3.8% the mass of the dwarf planet Eris. How this mass is partitioned between Orcus and Vanth depends of their relative sizes. If Vanth is 1/3rd the diameter Orcus, its mass is likely to be only 3% of the system. However, if it’s diameter is about half that of Orcus, then its mass could be as high as 1/12 of the system, or about 8% of the mass of Orcus.

Orcus compared to Earth and the Moon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Orcus compared to Earth and the Moon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Much like Pluto, Orcus has a very long orbital period, taking 245.18 years (89552 days) to complete a single rotation around the Sun. It also is in a 2:3 orbital resonance with Neptune and is above the ecliptic during perihelion. In addition, it’s orbit has a similar inclination and eccentricity as Pluto’s – 20.573° to the ecliptic, and 0.227, respectively.

In short, Orcus orbits the Sun at a distance of 30.27 AU (4.53 billion km) at perihelion and 48.07 AU (7.19 billion km) at aphelion. However, Pluto and Orcus are oriented differently. For one, Orcus is at aphelion when Pluto is at perihelion (and vice versa), and the aphelion of Orcus’s orbit points in nearly the opposite direction from Pluto’s. Hence why Orcus is often referred to as the “anti-Pluto”.

The density of the primary (and secondary assuming they have the same density) is estimated to be 1.5 g/cm3. In addition, spectroscopic and near-infrared observations have indicated that the surface is neutral in color and shows signs of water. Further infrared observations in 2004 by the European Southern Observatory and the Gemini Observatory indicated the possible presence of water ice and carbonaceous compounds.

This would indicate that Orcus is most likely differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle composed of water and methane ices as well as tholins – though not as much as other KBOs which are more reddish in appearance. The water and methane ices are believed to cover no more than 50% and 30% of the surface, respectively – which would mean the proportion of ice on the surface is less than on Charon, but similar to that on Triton.

Another interesting feature on Orcus is the presence of crystalline ice on its surface – which may be an indication of cryovolcanism – and the possible presence of ammonia dissolved in water and/or methane/ethane ices. This would make Orcus quite unique, since ammonia has not been detected on any other TNO or icy satellite of the outer planets (other than Uranus’ moon Miranda).

In 2011, Mike Brown and T.A. Suer detected a satellite in orbit of Orcus, based on images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on November 13th, 2005. The satellite was given the designation S/2005 (90482) before being renamed Vanth on March 30th, 2005. This name was the result of an opinion poll where Mike Brown asked readers of his weekly column to submit their suggestions.

The name Vanth, after the Etruscan goddess who guided the souls of the dead to the underworld, was eventually chosen from among a large pool of submissions, which Brown then submitted to the IAU. The IAU’s Committee for Small Body Nomenclature assessed it and determined it fit with their naming procedures, and officially approved of it in March of 2010.

Vanth orbits Orcus in a nearly face-on circular orbit at a distance of 9030 ± 89 km. It has an eccentricity of about 0.007 and an orbital period of 9.54 days. In terms of how Orcus acquired it, it is not likely that it was the result of a collision with an object, since Vanth’s spectrum is very different from that of its primary.

Therefore, it is much more likely that Vanth is a captured KBO that Orcus acquired in the course of its history. However, it is also possible that Vanth could have originated as a result of rotational fission of the primordial Orcus, which would have rotated much faster billions of years ago than it does now.

Much like most other KBOs, there is much that we still don’t know about Orcus. There are currently no plans for a mission in the near future. But given the growing interest in the region, it would not be surprising at all if future missions to the outer Solar System were to include a flyby of this world. And as we learn more about Orcus’ size, shape and composition, we are likely to see it added to the list of confirmed dwarf planets.

We have many interesting articles on Dwarf Planets, Kuiper Belt Objects, and the Outer Solar System here at Universe Today. Here is What is a Dwarf Planet? and What is the Kuiper Belt?

And be sure to checkout How Many Planets are in the Solar System?, and this article about all the Bright Objects in the Kuiper Belt.

For more information on Orcus, Vanth, check out the Planetary Society’s page on Orcus and Vanth. To learn more about how they were discovered, consult Mike Brown’s Planets.

Astronomy Cast also has a great interview with Mike Brown from Caltech.

The Dwarf Planet (and Plutoid) Makemake

Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA

In 2003, astronomer Mike Brown and his team from Caltech began a discovery process which would change the way we think of our Solar System. Initially, it was the discovery of a body with a comparable mass to Pluto (Eris) that challenged the definition of the word “planet”. But in the months and years that followed, more discoveries would be made that further underlined the need for a new system of classification.

This included the discovery of Haumea, Orcus and Salacia in 2004, and Makemake in 2005. Like many other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) discovered in the past decade, this planet’s status is the subject of some debate. However, the IAU was quick to designate it as the fourth dwarf planet in our Solar System, and the third “Plutoid“.

Discovery and Naming:

Makemake was discovered on March 31st, 2005, at the Palomar Observatory by a team consisting of Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo and David Rainowitz. The discovery was announced to the public on July 29th, 2005, coincident with the announcement of the discovery of Eris. Originally, Brown and his team had been intent on waiting for further confirmation, but chose to proceed after a different team in Spain announced the discovery of Haumea on July 27th.

The provisional designation of 2005 FY9 was given to Makemake when the discovery was first made public. Before that, the discovery team used the codename “Easterbunny” for the object, because it was observed shortly after Easter. In July of 2008, in accordance with IAU rules for classical Kuiper Belt Objects, 2005 FY9 was given the name of a creator deity.

 Photograph of Makemake taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Mike Brown
Photograph of Makemake taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Mike Brown

In order to preserve the object’s connection with Easter, the object was given a name derived from the mythos of the Rapa Nui (the native people of Easter Island) to whom Makemake is the creator God. It was officially classified as a dwarf planet and a plutoid by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) on July 19th, 2008.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Based on infrared observations conducted by Brown and his team using the Spitzer Space Telescope, which were compared to similar observations made by the Herschel Space Telescope, an estimated diameter of 1,360 – 1,480 km was made. Subsequent observations made during the 2011 stellar occulation by Makemake produced estimated dimensions of 1502 ± 45 × 1430 ± 9 km.

Estimates of its mass place it in the vicinity of 4 x 10²¹ kg (4,000,000,000 trillion kg), which is the equivalent of 0.00067 Earths. This makes Makemake the third largest known Trans-Neptunian Object (TNOs) – smaller than Pluto and Eris, and slightly larger than Haumea.

Makemake has a slightly eccentric orbit (of 0.159), which ranges from 38.590 AU (5.76 billion km/3.58 billion mi) at perihelion to 52.840 AU ( 7.94 billion km or 4.934 billion miles) at aphelion. It has an orbital period of 309.09 Earth years, and takes about 7.77 Earth hours to complete a single sidereal rotation. This means that a single day on Makemake is less than 8 hours and a single year last as long as 112,897 days.

A selection of dwarf planets, sometimes considered trans-Neptunian objects depending on their interactions with the planet Neptune. Credit: NASA/STSci
A selection of dwarf planets, sometimes considered trans-Neptunian objects depending on their interactions with the planet Neptune. Credit: NASA/STSci

As a classical Kuiper Belt Object, Makemake’s orbit lies far enough from Neptune to remain stable over the age of the Solar System. Unlike plutinos, which can cross Neptune’s orbit, classical KBOs are free from Neptune’s perturbation. Such objects have relatively low eccentricities (below 0.2) and orbit the Sun in much the same way the planets do. Makemake, however, is a member of the “dynamically hot” class of classical KBOs, meaning that it has a high inclination compared to others in its population.

Composition and Surface:

With an estimated mean density of 1.4–3.2 g/cm³, Makemake is believed to be differentiated between an icy surface and a rocky core. Like Pluto and Eris, the surface ice is believed to be composed largely of frozen methane (CH4) and ethane (C2H6). Though evidence exists for traces of nitrogen ice as well, it is nowhere near as prevalent as with Pluto or Triton.

Javier Licandro and his colleagues at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias performed examinations of Makemake using the William Herschel Telescope and Telescopio Nazionale Galileo. According to their findings, Makemake has a very bright surface (with a surface albedo of 0.81) which means it closely resembles that of Pluto.

In essence, it appears reddish in color (significantly more so than Eris), which also indicates strong concentrations of tholins in the surface ice. This is consistent with the presence of methane ice, which would have turned red due to exposure to solar radiation over time.


During it’s 2011 occultation with an 18th-magnitutde star, Makemake abruptly blocked all of its light. These results showed that Makemake lacks a substantial atmosphere, which contradicted earlier assumptions about it having an atmosphere comparable to that of Pluto. However, the presence of methane and possibly nitrogen suggests that Makemake could have a transient atmosphere similar to that of Pluto when it reaches perihelion.

Makemake. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the surface of Makemake. Credit: NASA

Essentially, when Makemake is closest to the Sun, nitrogen and other ices would sublimate, forming a tenuous atmosphere composed of nitrogen gas and hydrocarbons. The existence of an atmosphere would also provide a natural explanation for the nitrogen depletion, which could have been lost over time through the process of atmospheric escape.


In April of 2016, observations using the Hubble Space Telescope‘s Wide Field Camera 3 revealed that Makemake had a natural satellite – which was designated S/2015 (136472) 1 (nicknamed MK 2 by the discovery team). It is estimated to be 175 km (110 mi) km in diameter and has a semi-major axis at least 21,000 km (13,000 mi) from Makemake.


Currently, no missions have been planned to the Kuiper Belt for the purpose of conducting a survey of Makemake. However, it has been calculated that – based on a launch date of August 21st, 2024, and August 24th, 2036 – a flyby mission to Makemake could take just over 16 years, using a Jupiter gravity assist. On either occasion, Makemake would be approximately 52 AU from the Sun when the spacecraft arrives.

Makemake is now the fourth designated dwarf planet in the solar system, and the third Plutoid. In the coming years, it is likely to be joined several more objects in the Trans-Neptunian region that are similar in size, mass, and orbit. And assuming we mount a flyby to the region, we may discover many similar objects, and learn a great deal more about this one.

We have many interesting articles on Makemake and the Kuiper Belt here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Planets are in the Solar System, and Makemake’s Mysterious Atmosphere.


What Is A Dwarf Planet?

An artist's concept showing the size of the best known dwarf planets compared to Earth and its moon (top). Eris is left center; Ceres is the small body to its right and Pluto and its moon Charon are at the bottom. Credit: NASA

The term dwarf planet has been tossed around a lot in recent years. As part of a three-way categorization of bodies orbiting the Sun, the term was adopted in 2006 due to the discovery of objects beyond the orbit of Neptune that were comparable in size to Pluto. Since then, it has come to be used to describe many objects in our Solar System, upending the old classification system that claimed there were nine planets.

The term has also led to its fair share of confusion and controversy, with many questioning its accuracy and applicability to bodies like Pluto. Nevertheless, the IAU currently recognizes five bodies within our Solar System as dwarf planets, six more could be recognized in the coming years, and as many as 200 or more could exist within the expanse of the Kuiper Belt.


According to the definition adopted by the IAU in 2006, a dwarf planet is, “a celestial body orbiting a star that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity but has not cleared its neighboring region of planetesimals and is not a satellite. More explicitly, it has to have sufficient mass to overcome its compressive strength and achieve hydrostatic equilibrium.”

In essence, the term is meant to designate any planetary-mass object that is neither a planet nor a natural satellite that fits two basic criteria. For one, it must be in direct orbit of the Sun and not be a moon around another body. Second, it must be massive enough for it to have become spherical in shape under its own gravity. And, unlike a planet, it must have not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

The presently known largest trans-Neptunian objects (TSO) - are likely to be surpassed by future discoveries. Which of these trans-Neptunian objects (TSO) would you call planets and which "dwarf planets"? (Illustration Credit: Larry McNish, Data: M.Brown)
The largest known trans-Neptunian objects (TNO), shown to scale. Credit: Larry McNish/M.Brown

Size and Mass:

In order for a body to be become rounded, it must be sufficiently massive, to the point that its own gravity is the dominant force effecting it. Here, the internal pressure created by this mass would cause a surface to achieve plasticity, allowing high elevations to sink and hollows to fill in. This does not occur with smaller bodies that are less than a few km in diameter (such as asteroids), which are dominated by forces outside of their own gravity forces and tend to maintain irregular shapes.

Meanwhile, bodies that measure a few kilometers across – where their gravity is more significant but not dominant – tend to be spheroid or “potato-shaped”. The bigger the body is, the higher its internal pressure, until the pressure is sufficient to overcome its internal compressive strength and it achieves hydrostatic equilibrium. At this point, a body is as round as it can possibly be, given its rotation and tidal effects. This is the defining limit of a dwarf planet.

However, rotation can also affect the shape of a dwarf planet. If the body does not rotate, it will be a sphere. But the faster it does rotate, the more oblate or even scalene it becomes. The extreme example of this is Haumea, which is twice as long along its major axis as it is at the poles. Tidal forces also cause a body’s rotation to gradually become tidally locked, such that it always presents the same face to its companion. An extreme example of this is the Pluto-Charon system, where both bodies are tidally locked to each other.

The upper and lower size and mass limits of dwarf planets have not been specified by the IAU. And while the lower limit is defined as the achievement of a hydrostatic equilibrium shape, the size or mass at which an object attains this shape depends on its composition and thermal history.

For example, bodies made of rigid silicates (such as rocky asteroids) should achieve hydrostatic equilibrium at a diameter of approx. 600 km and a mass of 3.4×1020 kg. For a body made of less rigid water ice, the limit would closer to 320 km and 1019 kg. As a result, no specific standard currently exists for defining a dwarf planet based on either its size or mass, but is instead more generally defined based on its shape.

Orbital Dominance:

In addition to hydrostatic equilibrium, many astronomers have insisted that a distinction between planets and dwarf planets be made based on the inability of the latter to “clear the neighborhood around their orbits”. In short, planets are able to remove smaller bodies near their orbits by collision, capture, or gravitational disturbance (or establish orbital resonances that prevent collisions), whereas dwarf planets do not have the requisite mass to do this.

To calculate the likelihood of a planet clearing its orbit, planetary scientists Alan Stern and Harold F. Levison (the former of whom is the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Chief Scientist at Moon Express) introduced a parameter they designated as ? (lambda).

This parameter expresses the likelihood of an encounter resulting in a given deflection of an object’s orbit. The value of this parameter in Stern’s model is proportional to the square of the mass and inversely proportional to the period, and can be used to estimate the capacity of a body to clear the neighborhood of its orbit.

Astronomers like Steven Soter, the scientist-in-residence for NYU and a Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History, have advocated using this parameter to differentiate between planets and dwarf planets. Soter has also proposed a parameter he refers to as the planetary discriminant – designated as µ (mu) – which is calculated by dividing the mass of the body by the total mass of the other objects that share its orbit.

Recognized and Possible Dwarf Planets:

There are currently five dwarf planets: Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumea, and Ceres. Only Ceres and Pluto have been observed enough to indisputably fit into the category. The IAU decided that unnamed Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) with an absolute magnitude brighter than +1 (and a mathematically delimited minimum diameter of 838 km) are to be named as dwarf planets.

Possible candidates that are currently under consideration include Orcus, 2002 MS4, Salacia, Quaoar, 2007 OR10, and Sedna. All of these objects are located in the Kuiper Belt or the Scattered Disc; with the exception of Sedna, which is a detached object – a special class that applies to dynamic TNOs in the outer Solar System.

It is possible that there are another 40 known objects in the solar system that could be rightly classified as dwarf planets. Estimates are that up to 200 dwarf planets may be found when the entire region known as the Kuiper belt is explored, and that the number may exceed 10,000 when objects scattered outside the Kuiper belt are considered.

Pluto and moons Charon, Hydra and Nix (left) compared to the dwarf planet Eris and its moon Dysmonia (right). This picture was taken before Kerberos and Styx were discovered in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Credit: International Astronomical Union
Pluto and moons Charon, Hydra and Nix (left) compared to the dwarf planet Eris and its moon Dysmonia (right). Credit: International Astronomical Union


In the immediate aftermath of the IAU decision regarding the definition of a planet, a number of scientists expressed their disagreement with the IAU resolution. Mike Brown (the leader of the Caltech team that discovered Eris) agrees with the reduction of the number of planets to eight. However, astronomers like Alan Stern have voiced criticism over the IAUs definition.

Stern has contended that much like Pluto, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune have not fully cleared their orbital zones. Earth orbits the Sun with 10,000 near-Earth asteroids, which in Stern’s estimation contradicts the notion that it has cleared its orbit. Jupiter, meanwhile, is accompanied by a whopping 100,000 Trojan asteroids on its orbital path.

Thus, in 2011, Stern still referred to Pluto as a planet and accepted other dwarf planets such as Ceres and Eris, as well as the larger moons, as additional planets. However, other astronomers have countered this opinion by saying that, far from not having cleared their orbits, the major planets completely control the orbits of the other bodies within their orbital zone.

Another point of contention is the application of this new definition to planets outside of the Solar System. Techniques for identifying extrasolar objects generally cannot determine whether an object has “cleared its orbit”, except indirectly. As a result, a separate “working” definition for extrasolar planets was established by the IAU in 2001 and includes the criterion that, “The minimum mass/size required for an extrasolar object to be considered a planet should be the same as that used in the Solar System.”

Credit: The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo (
How the current IAU definition applies to exoplanets is a source of controversy for many astronomers. Credit:

Beyond the content of the IAU’s decision, there is also the controversy surrounding the decision process itself. Essentially, the final vote involved a relatively small percentage of the IAU General Assembly – 425 out of 9000, or less than 5%. This was due in part to the timing of the vote, which happened on the final day of the ten-day event when many members had already left.

However, supporters of the decision emphasize that a sampling of 400 representative out of a population of 9,000 statistically yields a result with good accuracy. Ergo, even if only 4-5% of the members voted in favor of reclassifying Pluto, the fact that the majority of said members agreed could be taken as a sampling of IAU opinion as a whole.

There is also the issue of the many astronomers who were unable to attend to the conference or who chose not to make the trip to Prague. Astronomer Marla Geha has also clarified that not all members of the Union were needed to vote on the classification issue, and that only those whose work is directly related to planetary studies needed to be involved.

Lastly, NASA has announced that it will use the new guidelines established by the IAU, which constitutes an endorsement or at least acceptance of the IAUs position. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding the 2006 decision is by no means over, and we can expect further developments on this front as more “dwarf planets” are found and designated.

Understanding what is a dwarf planet according to the IAU is easy enough, but making the solar system fit into a three tiered classification system will prove increasingly difficult as our understanding of the universe increases and we are able to see farther and farther into space.

We have written many articles about dwarf planets for Universe Today. Here’s one about Dwarf Planets, and here’s one on Why Pluto is no longer a planet.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode all about Dwarf Planets. Listen here, Episode 194: Dwarf Planets.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Overview: Dwarf Planets, the Solar System Exploration Guide on Dwarf Planets, and Mike Brown’s Dwarf Planet page.

Here is the list of all the known Dwarf Planets and their moons. We hope you find what you are looking for:

Recognized Dwarf Planets:

Possible Dwarf Planets:

The Dwarf Planet Ceres

A view of Ceres in natural colour, pictured by the Dawn spacecraft in May 2015. Credit: NASA/ JPL/Planetary Society/Justin Cowart

The Asteroid Belt is a pretty interesting place. In addition to containing between 2.8 and 3.2 quintillion metric tons of matter, the region is also home to many minor planets. The largest of these, known as Ceres, is not only the largest minor planet in the Inner Solar System, but also the only body in this region to be designated as a “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Due to its size and shape, when it was first observed, Ceres was thought to be a planet. While this belief has since been revised, Ceres is alone amongst objects in the Asteroid Belt in that it is the only object massive enough to have become spherical in shape. And like most of the dwarf planets in our Solar System, its status remains controversial, and our knowledge of it limited.

Discovery and Naming:

Ceres was discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi on January 1st, 1801, while searching for zodiacal stars. However, the existence of Ceres had been predicted decades before by Johann Elert Bode, a German astronomer who speculated that there had to be a planet between Mars and Jupiter. The basis for this assumption was the now defunct Bode-Titus law, which was first proposed by Johann Daniel Titius in 1766.

This law stated that there existed a regular pattern in the semi-major axes of the orbits of known planets, the only exception of which was the large gap between Mars and Jupiter. In an attempt to resolve this, in 1800, German astronomer Franz Xaver von Zach sent requests to twenty-four experienced astronomers (dubbed the “Celestial Police”) to combine their their efforts to located this missing planet.

Comparison of HST and Dawn FC images of Ceres taken nearly 11 years apart. Credit: NASA.
Comparison of HST and Dawn FC images of Ceres taken nearly 11 years apart. Credit: NASA.

One of these astronomers was Giuseppe Piazzi at the Academy of Palermo, who had made the discovery shortly before his invitation to join the group had arrived. At the time of his discovery, he mistook it for a comet, but subsequent observations led him to declare that it could be something more. He officially shared his observations with friends and colleagues by April of 1801, and sent the information to von Zach to be published in September.

Unfortunately, due to its change in its apparent position, Ceres was too close to the Sun’s glare to be visible to astronomers. It would not be until the end of the year that it would be spotted again, thanks in large part to German astronomer Carl Freidrich Gauss and the predictions he made of its orbit. On December 31st, von Zach and his colleague Heinrich W.M. Olbers found Ceres near the position predicted by Gauss, and thus recovered it.

Piazzi originally suggesting naming his discovery Cerere Ferdinandea, after the Roman goddess of agriculture Ceres (Cerere in Italian) and King Ferdinand of Sicily. The name Ferdinand was dropped in other nations, but Ceres was eventually retained. Ceres was also called Hera for a short time in Germany; whereas in Greece, it is still called Demeter after the Greek equivalent of the Roman goddess Ceres.


The classification of Ceres has changed more than once since its discovery, and remains the subject of controversy. For example, Johann Elert Bode – a contemporary of Piazzi –  believed Ceres to be the “missing planet” he had proposed to exist between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres was assigned a planetary symbol, and remained listed as a planet in astronomy books and tables (along with 2 Pallas, 3 Juno, and 4 Vesta) until the mid-19th century.

Ceres compared to asteroids visited to date, including Vesta, Dawn's mapping target in 2011. Image by NASA/ESA. Compiled by Paul Schenck.
Ceres compared to asteroids visited to date, including Vesta, Dawn’s mapping target in 2011. Credit: NASA/ESA/Paul Schenck.

As other objects were discovered in the neighborhood of Ceres, it was realized that Ceres represented the first of a new class of objects. In 1802, with the discovery of 2 Pallas, William Herschel coined the term asteroid (“star-like”) for these bodies. As the first such body to be discovered, Ceres was given the designation 1 Ceres under the modern system of minor-planet designations.

By the 1860s, the existence of a fundamental difference between asteroids such as Ceres and the major planets was widely accepted, though a precise definition of “planet” was never formulated. The 2006 debate surrounding Eris, Pluto, and what constitutes a planet led to Ceres being considered for reclassification as a planet.

The definition that was adopted on August 24th, 2006 carried the requirements that a planet have sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium, be in orbit around a star and not be a satellite, and have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. As it is, Ceres does not dominate its orbit, but shares it with the thousands of other asteroids, and constitutes only about a third of the mass of the Asteroid Belt. Bodies like Ceres that met some of these qualification, but not all, were instead classified as “dwarf planets”.

In addition to the controversy surrounding the use of this term, there is also the question of whether or not Ceres status as a dwarf planet means that it can no longer be considered an asteroid. The 2006 IAU decision never addressed whether Ceres is an asteroid or not. In fact, the IAU has never defined the word ‘asteroid’ at all, having preferred the term ‘minor planet’ until 2006, and the terms ‘small Solar System body’ and ‘dwarf planet’ thereafter.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Early observations of Ceres were only able to calculate its size to within an order of magnitude. In 1802, English astronomer William Herschel underestimated its diameter as 260 km, whereas in 1811 Johann Hieronymus Schröter overestimated it as 2,613 km. Current estimates place its mean radius at 473 km, and its mass at roughly 9.39 × 1020 kg (the equivalent of 0.00015 Earths or 0.0128 Moons).

Size comparison of Vesta, Eros and Ceres and Eros
Size comparison of Vesta, Eros and Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL

With this mass, Ceres comprises approximately a third of the estimated total mass of the asteroid belt (which is in turn approximately 4% of the mass of the Moon). The next largest objects are Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea, which have mean diameters of more than 400 km and masses of 2.6 x 1020 kg, 2.11 x 1020 kg, and 8.6 ×1019 kg respectively. The mass of Ceres is large enough to give it a nearly spherical shape, which  makes it unique amongst objects and minor planets in the Asteroid Belt.

Ceres follows a slightly inclined and moderately eccentric orbit, ranging from 2.5577 AU (382.6 million km) from the Sun at perihelion and 2.9773 AU (445.4 million km) at aphelion. It has an orbital period of 1,680 Earth days (4.6 years) and takes 0.3781 Earth days (9 hours and 4 minutes) to complete a sidereal rotation.

Composition and Atmosphere:

Based on its size and density (2.16 g/cm³), Ceres is believed to be differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle. Based on evidence provided by the Keck telescope in 2002, the mantle is estimated to be 100 km-thick, and contains up to 200 million cubic km of water – which is more fresh water than exists on Earth. Infrared data on the surface also suggests that Ceres may have an ocean beneath its icy mantle.

If true, it is possible that this ocean could harbor microbial extraterrestrial life, similar to what has been proposed about Mars, Titan, Europa and Enceladus. It has further been hypothesized that ejecta from Ceres could have sent microbes to Earth in the past.

Other possible surface constituents include iron-rich clay minerals (cronstedtite) and carbonate minerals (dolomite and siderite), which are common minerals in carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. The surface of Ceres is relatively warm, with the maximum temperature estimated to reach approximately 235 K (-38 °C, -36 °F) when the Sun is overhead.

Assuming the presence of sufficient antifreeze (such as ammonia), the water ice would become unstable at this temperature. Therefore, it is possible that Ceres may have a tenuous atmosphere caused by outgassing from water ice on the surface. The detection of significant amounts of hydroxide ions near Ceres’ north pole, which is a product of water vapor dissociation by ultraviolet solar radiation, is another indication of this.

However, it was not until early 2014 that several localized mid-latitude sources of water vapor were detected on Ceres. Possible mechanisms for the vapor release include sublimation from exposed surface ice (as with comets), cryovolcanic eruptions resulting from internal heat, and subsurface pressurization. The limited amount of data suggests that the vaporization is more consistent with cometary-style sublimation.


Multiple theories exist as to the origin of Ceres. On the one hand, it is widely believed that Ceres is a surviving protoplanet which formed 4.57 billion year ago in the Asteroid Belt. Unlike other inner Solar System protoplanets, Ceres neither merged with others to form a terrestrial planet and avoided being ejected from the Solar System by Jupiter. However, there is an alternate theory that proposes that Ceres formed in the Kuiper belt and later migrated to the asteroid belt.

The geological evolution of Ceres is dependent on the heat sources that were available during and after its formation, which would have been provided by friction from planetesimal accretion and decay of various radionuclides. These are thought to have been sufficient to allow Ceres to differentiate into a rocky core and icy mantle soon after its formation. This icy surface would have gradually sublimated, leaving behind various hydrated minerals like clay minerals and carbonates.

Today, Ceres appears to be a geologically inactive body, with a surface sculpted only by impacts. The presence of significant amounts of water ice in its composition is what has led scientists to the possible conclusion that Ceres has or had a layer of liquid water in its interior.


Until recently, very few direct observations had been made of Ceres and little was known about its surface features. In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope captured high-resolutions images that showed a dark spot in the surface that was thought to be a crater – and nicknamed “Piazzi” after its founder.

The near-infrared images taken by the Keck telescope in 2002 showed several bright and dark features moving with Ceres’s rotation. Two of the dark features had circular shapes and were presumed to be craters. One was identified as the “Piazzi” feature, while the other was observed to have a bright central region. In 2003 and 2004, visible-light images were taken by Hubble during a full rotation that showed 11 recognizable surface features, the natures of which are yet undetermined.

With the launch of the Dawn mission, with which NASA intends to conduct a nearly decade-long study of Ceres and Vesta, much more has been learned about this dwarf planet. For instance, after achieving orbit around the asteroid in March of 2015, Dawn revealed a large number of surface craters with low relief, indicating that they mark a relatively soft surface, most likely made of water ice.

Several bright spots have also been observed by Dawn, the brightest of which (“Spot 5”) is located in the middle of an 80 km (50 mi) crater called Occator. These bright features have an albedo of approximately 40% that are caused by a substance on the surface, possibly ice or salts, reflecting sunlight. A haze periodically appears above Spot 5, supporting the hypothesis that some sort of outgassing or sublimating ice formed the bright spots.

The Dawn spacecraft also noted the presence of a towering 6 kilometer-tall mountain (4 miles or 20,000 feet) in early August, 2015. This mountain, which is roughly pyramidal in shape and protrudes above otherwise smooth terrain, appears to be the only mountain of its kind on Ceres.

Like so many celestial bodies in our Solar System, Ceres is a mystery that scientists and astronomers are working to slowly unravel. In time, our exploration of this world will likely teach us much about the history and evolution of our Solar System, and may even lead to the discovery of life beyond Earth.

We have many interesting articles on Ceres here at Universe Today. For example, here are some articles on the many bright spots captured by the Dawn probe, and what they likely are.

And here are some articles on the Asteroid Belt and Why it Isn’t a Planet.

For more information, check out NASA’s Dawn – Ceres and Vesta and Dwarf Planets: Overview.