The Dwarf Planet Orcus

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”.

Composition:
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).

Moon:
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.

A Recipe for Returning Pluto to Full Planethood

A storm is brewing, a battle of words and a war of the worlds. The Earth is not at risk. It is mostly a civil dispute, but it has the potential to influence the path of careers. In 2014, a Harvard led debate was undertaken on the question: Is Pluto a planet. The impact of the definition of planet and everything else is far reaching – to the ends of the Universe.

It could mean a count of trillions of planets in our galaxy alone or it means leaving the planet Pluto out of the count – designation, just a dwarf planet. This is a question of how to classify non-stellar objects. What is a planet, asteroid, comet, planetoid or dwarf planet? Does our Solar System have 8 planets or some other number? Even the count of planets in our Milky Way galaxy is at stake.

"Dawn arising." The latest image of Ceres - February 12, 2015 -  by the Dawn spacecraft from 80,000 km. With icy deposits pock marking its surface, a possible reservoir of water below its surface, is Ceres a planet, dwarf planet, an asteroid or all three? (Credit: NASA/Dawn)
“Dawn arising.” The latest image of Ceres – February 12, 2015 – by the Dawn spacecraft from 80,000 km. With icy deposits pock marking its surface, a possible reservoir of water below its surface, is Ceres a planet, dwarf planet, an asteroid or all three? (Credit: NASA/Dawn)

Not to dwell on the Harvard debate, let it be known that if given their way, the debates outcome would reset the Solar System to nine planets. For over eight years, the solar system has had eight planets. During the period  1807 to 1845, our Solar System had eleven planets. Neptune was discovered in 1846 and astronomers began to discover many more asteroids. They were eliminated from the club. This is very similar to what is now happening to Pluto-like objects – Plutoids. So from 1846 to 1930, there were 8 planets – the ones as defined today.

The discoverer of Pluto - Clyde Tombaugh in the 1930s and again with homebuilt telescope in the 1990s that earned him an assignment at Lowell Observatory - discover Planet X. Cremated remains of Clyde are attached to the New Horizons space probe now approaching the dwarf planet Pluto.
The discoverer of Pluto – Clyde Tombaugh in the 1930s and again with homebuilt telescope in the 1990s that earned him an assignment at Lowell Observatory – discover Planet X. The cremated remains of Clyde are attached to the New Horizons space probe that is now approaching the dwarf planet Pluto.

In 1930, a Kansas farm boy, Clyde Tombaugh, hired by Lowell Observatory discovered Pluto and for 76 years there were 9 planets. In the year 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) took up a debate using a “democratic process” to accept a new definition of planet, define a new type – dwarf planet and then set everything else as “Small Bodies.” If your head is spinning with planets, you are not alone.

All two body systems have a barycenter, the shared point in space around which they orbit. Pluto and Charon’s happens to be between both bodies due to their proximity and similar mass. (Credit: NASA/New Horizons)

Two NASA missions were launched immediately before and after the IAU announcement took affect. The Dawn mission suddenly was to be launched to an asteroid and a dwarf planet and the New Horizons had rather embarked on a nine year journey to a planet belittled to a dwarf planet – Pluto. Principal Investigator, Dr. Alan Stern was upset. Furthermore, from the discoveries of the Kuiper mission and other discoveries, we now know that there are hundreds of billions of planets in our Milky Way galaxy; possibly trillions. The present definition excludes hundreds of billions of bodies from planethood status.

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 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)

There are two main camps with de facto leaders. One camp has Dr. Mike Brown of Caltech and the other, Dr. Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) as leading figures. A primary focus of Dr. Brown’s research is the study of trans-Neptunian objects while Dr. Sterns’s activities are many but specifically, the New Horizons mission which is 6 months away from its flyby of Pluto. Consider first the IAU Resolution 5A that its members approved:

(1) A “planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape2, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar System Bodies”.

This is our starting point – planet, dwarf planet, everything else. Consider “everything else”. This broad category includes meteoroids, asteroids, comets and planetesimals. Perhaps other small body types will arise as we look more closely at the Universe. Within the category, there is now a question of what is an asteroid and what is a comet. NASA’s flybys of comets and now ESA’s Rosetta at 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko are making the delineation between the two types difficult. The difference between a meteoroid and an asteroid is simply defined as less than or greater than one meter in size, respectively. So the Chelyabinsk event absolutely involved a small asteroid – about 20 meters in diameter. Planetesimals are small bodies in a solar nebula that are the building blocks of planets but they could lead to the creation of all the other types of small bodies.

Dr. Alan Stern, project scientist for New Horizons and Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss the New Horizons spacecraft in the mission operations center at JHU/APL. The interview was for a NOVA special (12/14/2011), the Pluto Files, about a Kansas farm boy, a missing planet and the 70 years of astronomical discoveries leading to the present day. (Credit: JHU/APL,PBS)
Dr. Alan Stern, project scientist for New Horizons and Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss the New Horizons spacecraft in the mission operations center at JHU/APL. The interview was for a NOVA special (12/14/2011), the Pluto Files, about a Kansas farm boy, a missing planet and the 70 years of astronomical discoveries leading to the present day. (Credit: JHU/APL,PBS)

Putting aside the question of “Small Bodies” and its sub-classes, what should be the definition of planet and dwarf planet? These are the two terms that demoted Pluto and raised Ceres to dwarf planet. It is also interesting to note how Resolution 5A is meant exclusively for our Solar System. In 2006, there were not thousands of exo-planets but just a few dozen extreme cases but nevertheless, the IAU did not choose to extend the definition to “stars” but rather just in reference to our pretty well known star, the Sun.

Recall Tim Allen’s movie, “The Santa Clause”. Clauses can cause a heap of trouble. The IAU has such a clause – Clause C which has caused much of the present controversy around the definition of planets. Clause (c) of Resolution 5A: “has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” This is the Pluto killer-clause which demoted it to dwarf planet status and reduced the number of planets in our solar system to eight. In a sense, the IAU chose to cauterize a wound, a weakness in the definitions, that if left unchanged, would have led to who knows how many planets in our Solar System.

The question of what is Pluto is open for public discussion so armed with enough knowledge to be dangerous, the following is my proposed alternative to the IAU’s that are arguably an improvement. The present challenge to Pluto’s status lies in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. Such belts or clouds are probably not uncommon throughout the galaxy. Plutoids are the 500 lb gorilla in the room.

Two spacecraft, Dawn and New Horizon will reach their final objectives in 2015 - Dwarf Planets - Ceres and Pluto. (Credit: NASA, Illustration - T.Reyes)
Two spacecraft, Dawn and New Horizon will reach their final objectives in 2015 – Dwarf Planets – Ceres and Pluto. (Credit: NASA, Illustration – T.Reyes)

This year, as touted by the likes of Planetary Society, Universe Today and elsewhere, is the year of the dwarf planet. How remarkable and surprising will the study of Ceres, Pluto and Charon by NASA spacecraft be? There is a strong possibility that after the celestial dust clears and data analysis is published, the IAU will take on the challenge again to better define what is a planet and everything else. It is impossible to imagine that the definitions can remain unchanged for long. Even now, there is sufficient information to independently assess the definitions and weigh in on the approaching debate. Anyone or any group – from grade schools to astronomical societies – can take on the challenge.

To encourage a debate and educate the public on the incredible universe that space probes and advanced telescopes are revealing, what follows is one proposed solution to what is a planet and everything else.

planet: is a celestial body that a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium – nearly round shape, b) has a differentiated interior as a result of its formation c) has insufficient mass to fuse hydrogen in its core, d) does not match the definition of a moon.

minor planet: is a planet with a mass less than one Pluto mass and does not match the definition of a moon.

inter-Stellar (minor) planet: is a (minor) planet that is not gravitationally bound to a stellar object.

binary (minor) planet: is a celestial body that is orbiting another (minor) planet for which the system’s barycenter resides above the surface of both bodies.

These definitions solve some hairy dilemmas. For one, planets orbit around the majority of most stars in the Universe, not just the Sun as Resolution 5A was only intended. Planets can also exist gravitationally not bound to a star –  the result of it own molecular cloud collapse without a star or expulsion from a stellar system. One could specify gravitational expulsion however, it is possible that explosive events occur that cause the disintegration of a star and its binding gravity or creates such an impulse that a planet is thrusted out of a stellar system. Having an atmosphere certainly doesn’t work. Astronomers are already anticipating Mars or Earth-sized objects deep in the Oort cloud that could have no atmosphere – frozen out and also despite their size, not be able to “clear their neighborhood.”

An animation (above) of Kepler mission planet candidates compiled by Jeff Thorpe. Kepler and other exoplanet projects are revealing that the properties of planets – orbits, size, temperature, makeup – are all extreme. Does Pluto represent one of those extremes – the smallest of planets? (Credit: NASA/Kepler, Jeff Thorp)

 

The need to create a lower-end limit to what is a planet reached a near fever pitch with the discovery of a Trans-Nepturnian Object (TNO) in 2005 that is bigger than Pluto – Eris.  Dr. Michael Brown of Caltech and his team led in the discovery of bright large KBOs. There was not just Eris but many of nearly the same size as Pluto. So without clause (c), one would be left with a definition for planet that could allow the count of planets in our Solar System to rise into the hundreds maybe even thousands. This would become a rather unmanageable problem; the number of planets rising year after year and never settled and with no means to make reasonable comparisons between planetary systems throughout our galaxy and even the Universe.

The book that tells the story of discovery - trans-Neptunian objects (TNO) that led to the downfall of Pluto from full planethood to that of a dwarf. The 2006 IAU decision was a pre-emptive strike to stave off a proliferation of planets in our system. It worked but "killed" Pluto. Did it have it coming? Dr. Brown also agrees that the present definition of planet is flawed and incomplete. (Photo Credits: Caltech/M.Brown)
The book that tells the story of discovery – trans-Neptunian objects (TNO) that led to the downfall of Pluto from full planethood to that of a dwarf. The 2006 IAU decision was a pre-emptive strike to stave off a proliferation of planets in our system. It worked but “killed” Pluto. Did it have it coming? Dr. Brown also agrees that the present definition of planet is flawed and incomplete. (Photo Credits: Caltech/M.Brown)

Two more celestial body types follow that are proposed to round out the set.

moon: is a celestial body that a) orbits a (minor) planet and b) for which the barycenter of its orbit is below the surface of its parent (minor) planet.

This creates the possibility of a planet-moon system such that its barycenter is above the surface of the larger body. Pluto and Charon are the most prominent case in our Solar System. In such cases, if one body meets the criteria of a (minor)planet, then the other body can also be assessed to determine if it is also a (minor) planet and the pair as binary (minor) planets. If the primary body was a minor planet, it is possible that the barycenter could be above its surface but the secondary body does not meet all the criteria of a minor planet, specifically “differentiated interior”.

The definition of moon is compounded by the existence of, for example, asteroids with moons. For such objects, the smaller object is defined as a satellite.

Satellite: is a celestial body that a) orbits another celestial body, b) whose parent body is not a (minor) planet.

Another permissible term is moonlet which could be used to describe both very small moons such as those found in the Jovian and Saturn systems or a small body orbiting an asteroid or comet. Moonlet could replace satellite.

The discriminator between planet and moon is not mass but simply whether the celestial body orbits a (minor) planet and the barycenter resides inside the larger body. The definition of moon excludes the possibility of a planet orbiting another planet except in the special case of binary (minor) planet.

Defining a lower size limit to “Planet” is necessary to compare stellar systems and classify. A limit based on the body’s average surface pressure and temperature or the surface gravity could define a limit. While they could, they are not practical because of the extremes and diverse combinations of conditions. Strange objects would fall through the cracks.

Removing clause (c) – “has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” – will avoid a future conflict such as a very low mass star with a plutoid-sized object or smaller, in a close orbit that has cleared its neighborhood.

Additionally, choosing to declare that Pluto becomes the “standard weight” that differentiates minor planet from planet sets a precedent. In an era in which computers measure and tally the state of our existence, setting this limit to include Pluto and return it as the ninth planet of our Solar System, is, in a small but significant way, a re-declaration of our humanity. Soon we will be challenged by artificial intelligence greater than ours; we are already have. Where will we stand our ground?

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)
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)

The consequences of this proposed set of definitions, makes Ceres a minor planet and no longer an asteroid. Many trans-Neptunian objects discovered in this century become minor planets. Of the known TNOs only Pluto and Eris meets the criteria of planet.The dwarf planet Eris would become the tenth planet. Makemake, Sedna, Quaoar, Orcus, Haumea would be minor planets. By keeping Pluto a planet and defining it as the standard bearer, only one new planet must be declared. Surely, more will be found, very distant, in odd elliptical and tilted orbits. The count of planets in our solar system could rise by 10, 20 maybe 50 and perhaps this would make the definition untenable but maybe not. So be it. New Horizons will fly by a dwarf planet in July but this should mark the beginning of the end of the present set of definitions.

Three perspectives of a ten planet Solar System. No longer Earth centered, or with harmonic spheres but now with planets outside the ecliptic plane and growing. How many planets would be too many? (Credits: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)
Three perspectives of a ten planet Solar System. No longer Earth centered, or with harmonic spheres but now with planets outside the ecliptic plane and growing. How many planets would be too many? (Credits: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)

This set of definitions defines a set of celestial bodies that consistently covers the spectrum of known bodies. There is the potential of exotic celestial objects that are spawned from cataclysmic events or from the unique conditions during the early epochs of the Universe or from remnants of old or dying stellar objects. Their discovery will likely trigger new or revised definitions but these definitions are a good working set for the time being. Ultimately, it is the decision of the IAU but the sharing of knowledge and the democratic processes that we cherish permits anyone to question and evaluate such definitions or proclamations.To all that share an interest in Pluto as or as not a planet raise your hand and be heard.

A video from 2014 by Kurz Gesagt describing the Pluto-Charon system. Is this a binary planet system or one of the “dwarf” variety?

Further Reading

Learn All About Pluto, The Most Famous Dwarf Planet, E. Howell, Universe Today, 1/17/2015

A synopsis of Pluto facts and figures at Universe Today, compendium of pages on Pluto

What is the Kuiper Belt?, video, Universe Today, 12/30/2013, Fraser Cain asks Mike Brown to explain the Kuiper Belt

Is The Moon A Planet?, E. Howell, Universe Today, 1/27/2015

It Looks Like These Are All the Bright Kuiper Belt Objects We’ll Ever FindUniverse Today, 1/12/2015

2015, NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet, Universe Today, 12/14/2014

A Serendipitous All Sky Survey For Bright Objects In The Outer Solar SystemCornell University Library, 1/5/2015

Ten Years of Eris, at Mike Brown’s Planets, 1/5/2015

My condolences to the friends and family of Tammy Plotner, the first regular contributing writer to Universe Today. Can’t we all relate to what drew Tammy to write about the Universe? She wrote outstanding articles for U.T.

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The Dark Energy Survey Begins to Reveal Previously Unknown Trans-Neptunian Objects

Sometimes when you stare at something long enough, you begin to see things. This is not the case with optical sensors and telescopes. Sure, there is noise from electronics, but it’s random and traceable. Stargazing with a telescope and camera is ideal for staring at the same patches of real estate for very long and repeated periods. This is the method used by the Dark Energy Survey (DES), and with less than one percent of the target area surveyed, astronomers are already discovering previously unknown objects in the outer Solar System.

The Dark Energy Survey is a five year collaborative effort that is observing Supernovae to better understand the structures and expansion of the universe. But in the meantime, transient objects much nearer to home are passing through the fields of view. Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), small icy worlds beyond the planet Neptune, are being discovered. A new scientific paper, released as part of this year’s American Astronomical Society gathering in Seattle, Washington, discusses these newly discovered TNOs. The lead authors are two undergraduate students from Carleton College of Northfield, Minnesota, participating in a University of Michigan program.

The Palomar Sky Survey (POSS-1, POSS-2), the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and every other sky survey have mapped not just the static, nearly unchanging night sky, but also transient events such as passing asteroids, comets, or novae events. The Dark Energy Survey is looking at the night sky for structures and expansion of the Universe. As part of the five year survey, DES is observing ten select 3 square degree fields for Type 1a supernovae on a weekly basis. As the survey proceeds, they are getting more than anticipated. The survey is revealing more trans-Neptunian objects. Once again, deep sky surveys are revealing more about our local environment – objects in the farther reaches of our Solar System.

DES is an optical imaging survey in search of Supernovae that can be used as weather vanes to measure the expansion of the universe. This expansion is dependent on the interaction of matter and the more elusive exotic materials of our Universe – Dark Energy and Dark Matter. The five year survey is necessary to achieve a level of temporal detail and a sufficient number of supernovae events from which to draw conclusions.

In the mean time, the young researchers of Carleton College – Ross Jennings and Zhilu Zhang – are discovering the transients inside our Solar System. Led by Professor David Gerdes of the University of Michigan, the researchers started with a list of nearly 100,000 observations of individual transients. Differencing software and trajectory analysis helped identify those objects that were trans-Neptunian rather than asteroids of the inner Solar System.

While asteroids residing in the inner solar system will pass quickly through such small fields, trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) orbit the Sun much more slowly. For example, Pluto, at an approximate distance of 40 A.U. from the Sun, along with the object Eris, presently the largest of the TNOs, has an apparent motion of about 27 arc seconds per day – although for a half year, the Earth’s orbital motion slows and retrogrades Pluto’s apparent motion. The 27 arc seconds is approximately 1/60th the width of a full Moon. So, from one night to the next, TNOs can travel as much as 100 pixels across the field of view of the DES survey detectors since each pixel has a width of 0.27 arc seconds.

Composite Dark Energy Camera image of one of the sky regions that the collaboration will use to study supernovae, exploding stars that will help uncover the nature of dark energy. The outlines of each of the 62 charge-coupled devices can be seen. This picture spans 2 degrees across on the sky and contains 520 megapixels. (Credit: Fermilab)
Composite Dark Energy Camera image of one of the sky regions that the collaboration will use to study supernovae, exploding stars that will help uncover the nature of dark energy. The outlines of each of the 62 charge-coupled devices can be seen. This picture spans 2 degrees across on the sky and contains 520 megapixels. (Credit: Fermilab)

The scientific sensor array, DECam, is located at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile utilizing the 4-meter (13 feet) diameter Victor M. Blanco Telescope. It is an array of 62 2048×4096 pixel back-illuminated CCDs totaling 520 megapixels, and altogether the camera weighs 20 tons.

A simple plot of the orbit of one of sixteen TNOs discovered by DES observatrions. (Credit: Dark Energy Detectives)
A simple plot of the orbit of one of sixteen TNOs discovered by DES observations. (Credit: Dark Energy Detectives)

With a little over 2 years of observations, the young astronomers stated, “Our analysis revealed sixteen previously unknown outer solar system objects, including one Neptune Trojan, several objects in mean motion resonances with Neptune, and a distant scattered disk object whose 1200-year orbital period is among the 50 longest known.”

Object 2013 TV158 is one of the objects discovered by Carleton College and University of Michigan team. Observed more than a dozen times over 10 months, the animated gif shows two image frames from August, 2014 taken two hours apart. 2013 TV158 takes 1200 years to orbit the Sun and is likely a few hundred kilometers across (about the size of the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Dark Energy Detectives)
Object 2013 TV158 is one of the objects discovered by the Carleton College and University of Michigan team. Observed more than a dozen times over 10 months, the animated gif shows two image frames from August 2014 taken two hours apart. 2013 TV158 takes 1200 years to orbit the Sun and is likely a few hundred kilometers across – about the size of the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Dark Energy Detectives)

“So far we’ve examined less than one percent of the area that DES will eventually cover,” says Dr. Gerdes. “No other survey has searched for TNOs with this combination of area and depth. We could discover something really unusual.”

Illustration of colour distribution of the trans-Neptunian objects. The horizontal axis represents the difference in intensity between visual (green & yellow) and blue of the object while the vertical is the difference between visual and red. The distribution indicates how TNOs share a common origin and physical makeup as well as common weathering in space. Yellow objects serve as reference: Neptune's moon Triton, Saturn's moon Phoebe, centaur Pholus, and the planet Mars. The objects color represents the hue of the object. The size of the objects are relative where the larger objects are more accurate estimates and smaller objects are simply based on absolute magnitude. (Credit: Wikimedia, Eurocommuter)
Illustration of color distribution of the trans-Neptunian objects. The horizontal axis represents the difference in intensity between visual (green & yellow) and blue of the object, while the vertical axis is the difference between visual and red. The distribution indicates how TNOs share a common origin and physical makeup, as well as common weathering in space. Yellow objects serve as reference: Neptune’s moon Triton, Saturn’s moon Phoebe, centaur Pholus, and the planet Mars. The object’s color represents the hue of the object. The size of the objects are relative – the larger objects are more accurate estimates, while smaller objects are simply based on absolute magnitude. (Credit: Wikimedia, Eurocommuter)

What does it all mean? It is further confirmation that the outer Solar System is chock-full of rocky-icy small bodies. There are other examples of recent discoveries, such as the search for a TNO for the New Horizons mission. As New Horizons has been approaching Pluto, the team turned to the Hubble space telescope to find a TNO to flyby after the dwarf planet. Hubble made short shrift of the work, finding three that the probe could reach. However, the demand for Hubble time does not allow long term searches for TNOs. A survey such as DES will serve to uncover many thousands of more objects in the outer Solar System. As Dr. Michael Brown of Caltech has stated, there is a fair likelihood that a Mars or Earth-sized object will be discovered beyond Neptune in the Oort Cloud.

References:
Observation of new trans-Neptunian Objects in the Dark Energy Survey Supernova Fields
Undergraduate Researchers Discover New Trans-Neptunian Objects
Dark Sky Detectives

For more details on the Dark Energy Survey: DES Website

Video: Beyond Neptune, It Sure Is Crowded With Icy Objects

Neptune photographed by Voyage. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Faster than you can say “trans-Neptunian object” three times, the reaches beyond Neptune’s orbit start to fill out in this animation. And it’s astounding. Dots representing icy bodies large and small fill the area.

What’s more sobering is realizing how little we knew about this region 20 years ago. Pluto was the first object in that region discovered in 1930, and it wasn’t until 1992 QB1 was discovered that our understanding of this neighborhood increased, wrote creator Alex Parker, a planetary astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Made this for a talk I gave today. I think it came out pretty nice,” Parker wrote yesterday (May 29) on Twitter.

Parker added on the video page: “This animation illustrates the approximate relative sizes and the true orbital motion of all known trans-Neptunian objects with average orbital distances (semi-major axes) greater than Neptune’s. The objects are revealed on the date of their discovery. Data extracted from the Minor Planet Center database.”

On Twitter, he also provided a link to another visualization of asteroid discoveries between 1980 and 2011 by Scott Manley: