Just over a month after it was announced that an ice volcano had been discovered on the dwarf planet Ceres, another miniature wonder has now been found in our solar system. A team of researchers, led by David Gerdes of the University of Michigan, have discovered what could be a brand-new dwarf planet. The new dwarf planet has been named 2014 UZ224.
Currently, there are five known dwarf planets, the most well-known being Pluto, which was once a planet before being demoted to dwarf status. The other four are Haumea, MakeMake, Eris, and Ceres.
With the exception of Ceres, which lies in the asteroid belt, all of the dwarf planets reside in the outer solar system. 2014 UZ224 would be no exception.
According to Joe Palca of NPR, the dwarf planet is about 8.5 billion miles from the sun, and it takes more than 1,000 years to complete a single orbit. Although not all of the details are known at this point, the dwarf planet is currently believed to be “the third-most distant object in the solar system,” according to Sarah Kaplan of the Washington Post.
The new dwarf planet is only 330 miles across. If officially acknowledged as a dwarf planet, it would become the smallest one to date. Ceres, which is 590 miles across, is currently the smallest of the dwarf planets. Some are likely to argue that 2014 UZ224 will be too small to be considered a dwarf planet.
NPR also describes how Gerdes discovered the dwarf planet using the “Dark Energy Camera,” which is a tool he had helped to develop. The Dark Energy Camera, also known as the DECam, is “commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy” to make maps of far away galaxies.
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To help find the dwarf planet, Gerdes also used the assistance of undergraduate researchers, whom he had asked to study objects in the galaxy map a few years back. The trick to finding dwarf planets, and other such objects, was to single out the things that moved. Gerdes and his students developed software to help identify slowly moving objects, such as dwarf planets.
“Objects in the solar system, when you observe them at one instant and then a little while later, they appear to be in a different place in the sky,” Gerdes explained to NPR’s Joe Palca.
Due to their extreme distance from Earth, stars and galaxies would essentially appear in the same spot. Asteroids, planets, and dwarf planets, which are closer to Earth, would move a bit with the passage of time. NPR’s Palca describes how a moving object would appear as “a dot of light” that seems to move across “the stationary backdrop of stars.”
There may be many other dwarf planets waiting to be found as well. According to the Washington Post article, there may be over 100 other dwarf planets lurking in the solar system. The chances of finding them may be stronger than ever.
“The fact that we can find a very distant, very slow-moving object like this in our survey,” Gerdes said in the Washington Post article, “is a promising sign that if there’s more things like this out there, we have a good shot at finding them.”
Moreover, for as exciting as the discovery of 2014 UZ224 and other dwarf planets may be, there may be even bigger news on the horizon. According to NPR, astronomers are looking for Planet Nine, a world reportedly “10 times more massive than Earth.” Gerdes is enthusiastic about the chances of finding Planet Nine as well.
“I’m excited about the chances of the people in this room finding it. Of course I’m happy for humanity if someone else finds it, it would be the most exciting astronomical discovery in our lifetime, I think,” Gerdes further told NPR’s Palca.
With the recent news of a potential new dwarf planet in 2014 UZ224, possible water plumes having been discovered on Jupiter’s moon Europa and President Obama’s goal to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, it is a very exciting time to be following what is happening in space.
[Featured Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]