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.


Eris’ Moon Dysnomia

Tenth planet? Artists concept of the view from Eris with Dysnomia in the background, looking back towards the distant sun. Credit: Robert Hurt (IPAC)
Tenth planet? Artists concept of the view from Eris with Dysnomia in the background, looking back towards the distant sun. Credit: Robert Hurt (IPAC)

Ask a person what Dysnomia refers to, and they might venture that it’s a medical condition. In truth, they would be correct. But in addition to being a condition that affects the memory (where people have a hard time remembering words and names), it is also the only known moon of the distant dwarf planet Eris.

In fact, the same team that discovered Eris a decade ago – a discovery that threw our entire notion of what constitutes a planet into question – also discovered a moon circling it shortly thereafter. As the only satellite that circles one of the most distant objects in our Solar System, much of what we know about this ball of ice is still subject to debate.

Discovery and Naming:

In January of 2005, astronomer Mike Brown and his team discovered Eris using the new laser guide star adaptive optics system at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. By September, Brown and his team were conducting observations of the four brightest Kuiper Belt Objects – which at that point included Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, and Eris – and found indications of an object orbiting Eris.

Provisionally, this body was designated S/2005 1 (2003 UB³¹³). However, in keeping with the Xena nickname that his team was already using for Eris, Brown and his colleagues nicknamed the moon “Gabrielle” after Xena’s sidekick. Later, Brown selected the official name of Dysnomia for the moon, which seemed appropriate for a number of reasons.

For one, this name is derived from the daughter of the Greek god Eris – a daemon who represented the spirit of lawlessness – which was in keeping with the tradition of naming moons after lesser gods associated with the primary god. It also seemed appropriate since the “lawless” aspect called to mind actress Lucy Lawless, who portrayed Xena on television. However, it was not until the IAU’s resolution on what defined a planet – passed in August of 2006 – that the planet was officially designated as Dysnomia.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

The actual size of Dysnomia is subject to dispute, and estimates are based largely on the planet’s albedo relative to Eris. For example, the IAU and Johnston’s Asteroids with Satellites Database estimate that it is 4.43 magnitudes fainter than Eris and has an approximate diameter of between 350 and 490 km (217 – 304 miles)

However, Brown and his colleagues have stated that their observations indicate it to be 500 times fainter and between 100 and 250 km (62 – 155 miles) in diameter. Using the Herschel Space Observatory in 2012, Spanish astronomer Pablo Santo Sanz and his team determined that, provided Dysnomia has an albedo five times that of Eris, it is likely to be 685±50 km in diameter.

Forget about Pluto for a moment. Should Eris be our tenth Planet? Like Pluto it has a prominent moon- Dysnomia. Human perception and conceptions of the Universe have shaped our view of the Solar System. The Ptolemaic system (Earth centered), Kepler's Harmonic Spheres, even the fact that ten digits reside on our hands impact our impression of the Solar System (Photo Credits:NASA/ESA and M. Brown / Caltech)
Eris and its moon, Dysnomia, as imaged by the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Credits:NASA/ESA and M. Brown/Caltech

In 2007, Brown and his team also combined Keck and Hubble observations to determine the mass of Eris, and estimate the orbital parameters of the system. From their calculations, they determined that Dysnomia’s orbital period is approximately 15.77 days. These observations also indicated that Dysnomia has a circular orbit around Eris, with a radius of 37350±140 km. In addition to being a satellite of a dwarf planet, Dysnomia is also a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) like Eris.

Composition and Origin:

Currently, there is no direct evidence to indicate what Dysnomia is made of. However, based on observations made of other Kuiper Belt Objects, it is widely believed that Dysnomia is composed primarily of ice. This is based largely on infrared observations made of Haumea (2003 EL61), the fourth largest object in the Kuiper Belt (after Eris, Pluto and Makemake) which appears to be made entirely of frozen water.

Astronomers now know that three of the four brightest KBOs – Pluto, Eris and Haumea – have one or more satellites. Meanwhile, of the fainter members, only about 10% are known to have satellites. This is believed to imply that collisions between large KBOs have been frequent in the past. Impacts between bodies of the order of 1000 km across would throw off large amounts of material that would coalesce into a moon.

This is an artist's concept of Kuiper Belt object Eris and its tiny satellite Dysnomia. Eris is the large object at the bottom of the illustration. A portion of its surface is lit by the Sun, located in the upper left corner of the image. Eris's moon, Dysnomia, is located just above and to the left of Eris. The Hubble Space Telescope and Keck Observatory took images of Dysnomia's movement from which astronomer Mike Brown (Caltech) precisely calculated Eris to be 27 percent more massive than Pluto. Artwork Credit: NASA, ESA, Adolph Schaller (for STScI)
Artist’s concept of Kuiper Belt Object Eris and its tiny satellite Dysnomia. The Hubble Space Telescope and Keck Observatory took images of Dysnomia’s movement from which astronomer Mike Brown (Caltech) precisely calculated Eris to be 27 percent more massive than Pluto. Credit: NASA/ESA/Adolph Schaller (for STScI)

This could mean that Dysnomia was the result of a collision between Eris and a large KBO. After the impact, the icy material and other trace elements that made up the object would have evaporated and been ejected into orbit around Eris, where it then re-accumulated to form Dysnomia. A similar mechanism is believed to have led to the formation of the Moon when Earth was struck by a giant impactor early in the history of the Solar System.

Since its discovery, Eris has lived up to its namesake by stirring things up. However, it has also helped astronomers to learn many things about this distant region of the Solar System. As already mentioned, astronomers have used Dysnomia to estimate the mass of Eris, which in turn helped them to compare it to Pluto.

While astronomers already knew that Eris was bigger than Pluto, but they did not know whether it was more massive. This they did by measuring the distance between Dysnomia and how long it takes to orbit Eris. Using this method, astronomers were able to discover that Eris is 27% more massive than Pluto is.

With this knowledge in hand, the IAU then realized that either Eris needed to be classified as a planet, or that the term “planet” itself needed to be refined. Ergo, one could make that case that it was the discovery of Dysnomia more than Eris that led to Pluto no longer being designated a planet.

Universe Today has articles on Xena named Eris and The Dwarf Planet Eris. For more information, check out Dysnomia and dwarf planet outweighs Pluto.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Pluto’s planetary identity crisis.


Newest Planet: Is it Pluto, Eris or Extrasolar?

Eris, the newest planet?
Eris, the newest planet?

With astronomers discovering new planets and other celestial objects all the time, you may be wondering what the newest planet to be discovered is. Well, that depends on your frame of reference. If we are talking about our Solar System, then the answer used to be Pluto, which was discovered by the American astronomer Clyde William Tombaugh in 1930.

Unfortunately, Pluto lost its status as a planet in 2006 when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet. Since then, another contender has emerged for the title of “newest planet in the Solar System” – a celestial body that goes by the name of Eris – while beyond our Solar System, thousands of new planets are being discovered.

But then, the newest planet might be the most recently discovered extrasolar planet. And these are being discovered all the time.

Continue reading “Newest Planet: Is it Pluto, Eris or Extrasolar?”

Europa Life: Could ‘Extreme Shrimp’ Point To Microbes On That Moon?

This is a type of shrimp that lives in hydrothermal vents (areas of hot water) in the Caribbean. NASA is studying Rimicaris hybisae and other "extreme shrimp" to learn more about lifeforms that could survive on other worlds. Credit: Chris German, WHOI/NSF, NASA/ROV Jason C: 2012 Woods

For all of the talk about aliens that we see in science fiction, the reality is in our Solar System, any extraterrestrial life is likely to be microbial. The lucky thing for us is there are an abundance of places that we can search for them — not least Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter believed to harbor a global ocean and that NASA wants to visit fairly soon. What lurks in those waters?

To gain a better understanding of the extremes of life, scientists regularly look at bacteria and other lifeforms here on Earth that can make their living in hazardous spots. One recent line of research involves shrimp that live in almost the same area as bacteria that survive in vents of up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius) — way beyond the boiling point, but still hospitable to life.

Far from sunlight, the bacteria receive their energy from chemical combinations (specifically, hydrogen sulfide). While the shrimp certainly don’t live in these hostile areas, they perch just at the edge — about an inch away. The shrimp feed on the bacteria, which in turn feed on the hydrogen sulfide (which is toxic to larger organisms if there is enough of it.) Oh, and by the way, some of the shrimps are likely cannibals!

One species called Rimicaris hybisae, according to the evidence, likely feeds on each other. This happens in areas where the bacteria are not as abundant and the organisms need to find some food to survive. To be sure, nobody saw the shrimps munching on each other, but scientists did find small crustaceans inside them — and there are few other types of crustaceans in the area.

But how likely, really, are these organisms on Europa? Bacteria might be plausible, but something larger and more complicated? The researchers say this all depends on how much energy the ecosystems have to offer. And in order to see up close, we’d have to get underwater somehow and do some exploring.

In a recent Universe Today interview with Mike Brown, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology, the renowned dwarf-planet hunter talked about how a submarine could do some neat work.

“In the proposed missions that I’ve heard, and in the only one that seems semi-viable, you land on the surface with basically a big nuclear pile, and you melt your way down through the ice and eventually you get down into the water,” he said. “Then you set your robotic submarine free and it goes around and swims with the big Europa whales.” You can see the rest of that interview here.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Hydrogen Peroxide Could Feed Life on Europa

Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa's frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)
Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa's frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)

According to research by NASA astronomers using the next-generation optics of the 10-meter Keck II telescope, Jupiter’s ice-encrusted moon Europa has hydrogen peroxide across much of the surface of its leading hemisphere, a compound that could potentially provide energy for life if it has found its way into the moon’s subsurface ocean.

“Europa has the liquid water and elements, and we think that compounds like peroxide might be an important part of the energy requirement,” said JPL scientist Kevin Hand, the paper’s lead author. “The availability of oxidants like peroxide on Earth was a critical part of the rise of complex, multicellular life.”

The paper, co-authored by Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, analyzed data in the near-infrared range of light from Europa using the Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, over four nights in September 2011. The highest concentration of peroxide found was on the side of Europa that always leads in its orbit around Jupiter, with a peroxide abundance of 0.12 percent relative to water. (For perspective, this is roughly 20 times more diluted than the hydrogen peroxide mixture available at drug stores.) The concentration of peroxide in Europa’s ice then drops off to nearly zero on the hemisphere of Europa that faces backward in its orbit.

Hydrogen peroxide was first detected on Europa by NASA’s Galileo mission, which explored the Jupiter system from 1995 to 2003, but Galileo observations were of a limited region. The new Keck data show that peroxide is widespread across much of the surface of Europa, and the highest concentrations are reached in regions where Europa’s ice is nearly pure water with very little sulfur contamination.

This color composite view combines violet, green, and infrared images of Europa acquired by Galileo in 1997 for a view of the moon in natural color (left) and in enhanced color (right). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
This color composite view combines violet, green, and infrared images of Europa acquired by Galileo in 1997 for a view of the moon in natural color (left) and in enhanced color (right). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The peroxide is created by the intense radiation processing of Europa’s surface ice that comes from the moon’s location within Jupiter’s strong magnetic field.

“The Galileo measurements gave us tantalizing hints of what might be happening all over the surface of Europa, and we’ve now been able to quantify that with our Keck telescope observations,” Brown said. “What we still don’t know is how the surface and the ocean mix, which would provide a mechanism for any life to use the peroxide.”

Read more: Evidence for a Deep Ocean on Europa Might Be Found on its Surface

The scientists think hydrogen peroxide is an important factor for the habitability of the global liquid water ocean under Europa’s icy crust because hydrogen peroxide decays to oxygen when mixed into liquid water. “At Europa, abundant compounds like peroxide could help to satisfy the chemical energy requirement needed for life within the ocean, if the peroxide is mixed into the ocean,” said Hand.

(Source: NASA)

What’s notable to add, on March 26, 2013, the U.S. President signed a bill that would increase the budget for NASA’s planetary science program as well as provide $75 million for the exploration of Europa. Exactly how the funds will be used isn’t clear — perhaps for components on the proposed Europa Clipper mission? —  but it’s a step in the right direction for learning more about this increasingly intriguing world. Read more on SETI’s Destination: Europa blog.

Evidence for a Deep Ocean on Europa Might be Found on its Surface

Astronomers hypothesize that chloride salts bubble up from the icy moon's global liquid ocean and reach the frozen surface where they are bombarded with sulfur from volcanoes on Jupiter's largest moon, Io. This illustration of Europa (foreground), Jupiter (right) and Io (middle) is an artist's concept. Credit: Keck Observatory.

Astronomer Mike Brown and his colleague Kevin Hand might be suffering from “Pump Handle Phobia,” as radio personality Garrison Keillor calls it, where those afflicted just can’t resist putting their tongues on something frozen to see if it will stick. But Brown and Hand are doing it all in the name of science, and they may have found the best evidence yet that Europa has a liquid water ocean beneath its icy surface. Better yet, that vast subsurface ocean may actually shoot up to Europa’s surface, on occasion.

In a recent blog post, Brown pondered what it would taste like if he could lick the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. “The answer may be that it would taste a lot like that last mouthful of water that you accidentally drank when you were swimming at the beach on your last vacation. Just don’t take too long of a taste. At nearly 300 degrees (F) below zero your tongue will stick fast.”

His ponderings were based on a new paper by Brown and Hand which combined data from the Galileo mission (1989 to 2003) to study Jupiter and its moons, along with new spectroscopy data from the 10-meter Keck II telescope in Hawaii.

The study suggests there is a chemical exchange between the ocean and surface, making the ocean a richer chemical environment.

“We now have evidence that Europa’s ocean is not isolated—that the ocean and the surface talk to each other and exchange chemicals,” said Brown, who is an astronomer and professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech. “That means that energy might be going into the ocean, which is important in terms of the possibilities for life there. It also means that if you’d like to know what’s in the ocean, you can just go to the surface and scrape some off.”

“The surface ice is providing us a window into that potentially habitable ocean below,” said Hand, deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration at JPL.

Europa’s ocean is thought to cover the moon’s whole globe and is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) thick under a thin ice shell. Since the days of NASA’s Voyager and Galileo missions, scientists have debated the composition of Europa’s surface.

Salts were detected in the Galileo data – “Not ‘salt’ as in the sodium chloride of your table salt,” Brown wrote in his blog, “Mike Brown’s Planets,” “but more generically ‘salts’ as in ‘things that dissolve in water and stick around when the water evaporates.’”

That idea was enticing, Brown said, because if the surface is covered by things that dissolve in water, that strongly implies that Europa’s ocean water has flowed on the surface, evaporated, and left behind salts.

But there were other explanations for the Galileo data, as Europa is constantly bombarded by sulfur from the volcanoes on Io, and the spectrograph that was on the Galileo spacecraft wasn’t able to tell the difference between salts and sulfuric acid.

But now, with data from the Keck Observatory, Brown and Hand have identified a spectroscopic feature on Europa’s surface that indicates the presence of a magnesium sulfate salt, a mineral called epsomite, that could have formed by oxidation of a mineral likely originating from the ocean below.

This view of Jupiter's moon Europa features several regional-resolution mosaics overlaid on a lower resolution global view for context. The regional views were obtained during several different flybys of the moon by NASA's Galileo mission.  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.
This view of Jupiter’s moon Europa features several regional-resolution mosaics overlaid on a lower resolution global view for context. The regional views were obtained during several different flybys of the moon by NASA’s Galileo mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

Brown and Hand started by mapping the distribution of pure water ice versus anything else. The spectra showed that even Europa’s leading hemisphere contains significant amounts of non-water ice. Then, at low latitudes on the trailing hemisphere — the area with the greatest concentration of the non-water ice material — they found a tiny, never-before-detected dip in the spectrum.

The two researchers tested everything from sodium chloride to Drano in Hand’s lab at JPL, where he tries to simulate the environments found on various icy worlds. At the end of the day, the signature of magnesium sulfate persisted.

The magnesium sulfate appears to be generated by the irradiation of sulfur ejected from the Jovian moon Io and, the authors deduce, magnesium chloride salt originating from Europa’s ocean. Chlorides such as sodium and potassium chlorides, which are expected to be on the Europa surface, are in general not detectable because they have no clear infrared spectral features. But magnesium sulfate is detectable. The authors believe the composition of Europa’s ocean may closely resemble the salty ocean of Earth.

While no one is going to be traveling to Europa to lick its surface, for now, astronomers will continue to use the modern giant telescopes on Earth to continue to “take spectral fingerprints of increasing detail to finally understand the mysterious details of the salty ocean beneath the ice shell of Europa,” Brown said.

Also, NASA is looking into options to explore Europa further. (Universe Today likes the idea of a big drill or submarine!)

But in the meantime what happens next? “We look for chlorine, I think,” Brown wrote. “The existence of chlorine as one of the main components of the non-water-ice surface of Europa is the strongest prediction that this hypothesis makes. We have some ideas on how we might look; we’re working on them now. Stay tuned.”

Read Brown & Hand’s paper.

Sources: Mike Brown’s Planets, Keck Observatory, JPL

Video: Weekly Space Hangout with Special Guest Alan Stern

If you missed it live, here’s the replay of this week’s Space Hangout. And don’t forget, on Friday, Feb. 17 at 18:00 UTC (1 pm EST, 10 am PST) I’ll be interviewing astronomer and Pluto killer (@Plutokiller) Mike Brown. To watch the Hangout on Air, circle Fraser on Google+ and watch his feed for the link to the Hangout. There you can join in on the conversation and post your questions for Mike by posting comments on the feed.

If you aren’t on Google+, you can also watch it live on the CosmoQuest Hangouts page, where there is also a place to post comments and questions. And we’ll also try to have a live feed on Universe Today. Just look for a video player in the upper right hand corner of the site and click the ‘play’ button. If you can’t watch live, we’ll post a recording of the Hangout later on UT, just like the one above.

“Pluto-Killer” Sets Sights on Neptune

Infrared image of Neptune from Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Credit: Mike Brown/CalTech


The confessed (and remorseless) “Pluto Killer” Mike Brown has turned his gaze – and the 10-meter telescope at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii – on Neptune, our solar system’s furthest “official” planet. But no worries for Neptune – Mike isn’t after its planetary status… he’s taken some beautiful infrared images instead!

Normally only visible as a featureless blue speck in telescopes, Brown’s image of Neptune — along with its largest moon Triton —  shows the icy gas giant in infrared light, glowing bright red and orange.

Neptune and Triton in infrared. Credit: Mike Brown/CalTech.

Brown’s initial intention was not just to get some pretty pictures of planets. The target of the imaging mission was Triton and to learn more about the placement of its methane, nitrogen and seasonal frosts, and this sort of research required infrared imaging. Of course, Neptune turned out to be quite photogenic itself.

“The big difference is doing the imaging in the infrared where methane absorbs most of the photons,” said Brown. “So the bright places are high clouds where the sunlight reflects off of them before it had a chance to pass through much of the atmosphere. Dark is clear atmosphere full of methane absorption.

“I just thought it was so spectacular that I should post it.”

No argument here, Mike!

Neptune, now officially the outermost planet in our solar system, is the fourth largest planet and boasts the highest wind speeds yet discovered — 1,250 mph winds scream around its frigid skies! Like the other gas giants Neptune has a system of rings, although nowhere near as extravagant as Saturn’s. It has 13 known moons, of which Triton is the largest.

With its retrograde orbit, Triton is believed to be a captured Kuiper Belt Object now in orbit around Neptune. Kuiper Belt Objects are Mike Brown’s specialty, as he is the astronomer most well-known for beginning the whole process that got Pluto demoted from the official planet list back in 2006.

Read more on here.


Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor or on Facebook for the most up-to-date astronomy awesomeness!

A New Way to do Science? Live-Tweeting Observations of Haumea

How the transit of transit of the dwarf planet Haumea by its moon, Namaka would have looked if we could have seen it directly. Credit: Mike Brown


Back when I first started using Twitter in 2008, I never would have guessed this social media outlet could be used as a conduit for engaging the public about science. But it is facilitating open science in several ways. For example, if you follow Mike Brown on Twitter (@plutokiller) you may have seen a flurry of Tweets from him last weekend as he live-Tweeted his observations of a transit of dwarf planet Haumea by its moon, Namaka. While Brown was at the 4-meter William Herschel telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands, he explained the process and released multiple plots showing in real time how Haumea dimmed as Namaka passed in front. “This event was particularly live-tweet friendly,” he said on Thursday during a Q&A (again on Twitter) about how he shared his observations live. “We’d know a clear result instantly. Given the chance, I will def[intely] do it again!”

The observations were a success and “spectacular,” Brown said, but it was a little risky in that the transit wasn’t exactly a sure thing, and he might have suddenly — and publicly — had to report that he and his team had incorrectly predicted the transit. But it worked out – after a little hitch – and Brown said that live Tweeting the event gave people a chance to see how science really works in real time. “Normally people would just see the finished paper… the fun part of live tweeting the event was that people could follow as the data came in and hypotheses changed.” (The initial data was much different than expected).

You can see the stream of data as it arrived archived on Brown’s Twitpic page:

“One main reason to watch transit was to measure size & shape of Haumea, since it is so weird,” Brown Tweeted, and said that he’ll be spending the summer analyzing the data he got during the transit to learn more about the football-shaped, spinning dwarf planet.

If you missed the live-Tweeting, you can look back at Brown’s Twitter page), and Nature Blogs has archived the Tweeted Q&A the blog sponsored with Brown on Thursday, June 16, 2011.

It’s science in action.

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

More Surprises From Pluto

Artist's illustration of Pluto's surface. Credit: NASA


Ah, Pluto. Seems every time we think we’ve got it figured out, it has a new surprise to throw at us.

First spotted in 1930 by a young Clyde Tombaugh, for 76 years it enjoyed a comfortable position as the solar system’s most distant planet. Then a controversial decision in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, spurred by suggestions from astronomer (and self-confessed “planet-killer”) Mike Brown*, relegated Pluto to a new class of worlds called “dwarf planets”. Not quite planets and not quite asteroids, dwarf planets cannot entirely clear their orbital path with their own gravitational force and thus miss out on full planetary status. Besides immediately making a lot of science textbooks obsolete and rendering the handy mnemonic “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies” irrelevant (or at least confusing), the decision angered many people around the world, both in and out of the scientific community. Pluto is a planet, they said, it always has been and always will be! Save Pluto! the schoolkids wrote in crayon to planetarium directors. The world all of a sudden realized how much people liked having Pluto as the “last” planet, and didn’t want to see it demoted by decision, especially a highly contested one.

Yet as it turns out, Pluto really may not be a planet after all.

It may be a comet.

But…that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First things first.

Discovery data showing carbon monoxide spectrum. Credit: J.S. Greaves / Joint Astronomy Centre.

Recent discoveries by a UK team of astronomers points to the presence of carbon monoxide in Pluto’s atmosphere. Yes, Pluto has an atmosphere; astronomers have known about it since 1988. At first assumed to be about 100km thick, it was later estimated to extend out about 1500km and be composed of methane gas and nitrogen. This gas would expand from the planet’s – er, dwarf planet’s – surface as it came closer to the Sun during the course of its eccentric 248-year orbit and then freeze back onto the surface as it moved further away. The new findings from the University of St Andrews team, made by observations with the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii, identify an even thicker atmosphere containing carbon monoxide that extends over 3000 km, reaching nearly halfway to Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

It’s possible that this carbon monoxide atmosphere may have expanded outwards from Pluto, especially in the years since 1989 when it made the closest approach to the Sun in its orbit. Surface heating (and the term “heating” is used scientifically here…remember, at around -240ºC (-400ºF) Pluto would seem anything but balmy to us!) by the Sun’s radiation would have warmed the surface and expelled these gases outwards. This also coincides with observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope over the course of four years, which revealed varying patterns of dark and light areas on Pluto’s surface – possibly caused by the thawing of frozen areas that shift and reveal lighter surface material below.

“Seeing such an example of extra-terrestrial climate-change is fascinating. This cold simple atmosphere that is strongly driven by the heat from the Sun could give us important clues to how some of the basic physics works, and act as a contrasting test-bed to help us better understand the Earth’s atmosphere.”

–  Dr. Jane Greaves, Team Leader

In fact, carbon monoxide may be the key to why Pluto even still has an atmosphere. Unlike methane, which is a greenhouse gas, carbon monoxide acts as a coolant; it may be keeping Pluto’s fragile atmosphere from heating up too much and escaping into space entirely! Over the decades and centuries that it takes for Pluto to complete a single year, the balance between these two gases must be extremely precise.

Read more about this discovery on the Royal Astronomical Society’s site.

Pluto's elliptical orbit

So here we have Pluto exhibiting an expanding atmosphere of thawing expelled gas as it gets closer to the Sun in an elliptical, eccentric orbit. (Sound familiar?) And now there’s another unusual, un-planet-like feature that’s being put on the table: Pluto may have a tail.

Actually this is an elaboration of the research results coming from the same team at the University of St Andrews. The additional element here is a tiny redshift detected in the carbon monoxide signature, indicating that it is moving away from us in an unusual way. It’s possible that this could be caused by the top layers of Pluto’s atmosphere – where the carbon monoxide resides – being blown back by the solar wind into, literally, a tail.

That sounds an awful lot, to this particular astronomy reporter anyway, like a comet.

Just saying.

Anyway, regardless of what Pluto is or isn’t, will be called or used to be called, there’s no denying that it is a fascinating little world that deserves our attention. (And it will be getting plenty of that come July 2015 when the New Horizons spacecraft swings by for a visit!) I’m sure there’s no one here who would argue that fact.

New Horizons’ upcoming visit will surely answer many questions about Pluto – whatever it is – and most likely raise even more.


Artist's impression of Pluto's huge atmosphere of carbon monoxide.Credit:P.A.S. Cruickshank.

The new discovery was presented by team leader Dr. Jane Greaves on Wednesday, April 20 at the National Astronomy Meeting in Wales.

Article reference: Discovery Of Carbon Monoxide In The Upper Atmosphere Of Pluto


*No disrespect to Mr. Brown intended…he was just performing science as he saw fit!