Astronomers have just discovered the most distant object in the solar system — again. While this certainly rings a very familiar bell, this latest finding is actually brand-new and has a very interesting backstory to boot.
As many space enthusiasts may remember, last December a team of astronomers announced the discovery of what was hailed as the most distant object in our solar system — a 310-mile-wide dwarf planet known as 2018 VG18 and affectionately nicknamed FarOut. Lurking all the way in the Kuiper Belt – the distant realm of frozen worlds floating beyond the orbit of Neptune – FarOut was spotted at a staggering distance of 120 astronomical units (AU) from Earth, The Inquisitr reported at the time.
Given that one AU represents the average distance between Earth and the sun and is equivalent to roughly 93 million miles, FarOut lies about 11.1 billion miles from our planet.
FarFarOut: Farther Out Than FarOut
A few short months after their momentous breakthrough, the team actually managed to top last year’s discovery. The same researchers – Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Chad Trujillo of Northern Arizona University, and David Tholen of the University of Hawaii – have stumbled upon an even more distant object in the Kuiper Belt, Science Magazine is reporting.
The newfound object, which still needs to be confirmed through additional observations, is an extreme dwarf planet floating through space at a whopping 140 AU from Earth. The object is about 250 miles long and sits at an astounding distance of 13 billion miles from our home world.
Since it lies ever farther away than FarOut, the dwarf planet has been dubbed FarFarOut.
What's farther away than the dwarf planet "Farout?"— News from Science (@NewsfromScience) February 25, 2019
Meet "FarFarOut." https://t.co/XaSmbTDcBJ
FarFarOut is not only more far-flung than FarOut, but it’s actually the most faraway known object in the entire solar system. The dwarf planet is so distant from the sun that it takes nearly 20 hours for the solar rays to reach it, notes Gizmodo.
By comparison, Pluto sits at a distance of 34 AU. This makes FarFarOut some 3.5 times more distant than the famous dwarf planet. Meanwhile, Eris – another notable Kuiper Belt object – lies at 96 AU.
So, what do we know about FarFarOut, the extreme dwarf planet that dethroned FarOut as the most distant object in our solar system? Well, not much — at least not yet, anyway. According to Sheppard, further telescope observations are required in order to confirm that it’s actually there and to glean more data on the mysterious far-off planetoid, such as finding out its orbit.
What we do know is that the object is so small that astronomers almost missed it. Even to the powerful Subaru 8-meter telescope in Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, the dwarf planet only looked like a tiny speck of light in the vastness of space.
“It is very faint; it is on the edge of our ability to detect it,” Sheppard told The Guardian.
“We don’t know anything about the orbit of this object, we just know it is far, far out.”
A Chance Discovery
Like many other great discoveries, FarFarOut was uncovered by chance. The planetoid was serendipitously spotted by Sheppard on February 20 after the astronomer decided to take advantage of a snow day to do some research.
On that day, the scientist was supposed to give a lecture in Washington, D.C., about the ongoing search for the elusive Planet Nine – an enigmatic super-Earth 10 times bigger than our home planet believed to be lurking in the Kuiper Belt. Finding himself snowed in and unable to attend his previous engagement, Sheppard hunkered down to pore over the data gathered by his team after observing the fringes of the solar system in January.
While sifting through telescope observations taken in search of Planet Nine, the astronomer stumbled upon a new, faint detection — FarFarOut, which later turned out to potentially be the most distant known object in the entire solar system.
Astronomer Scott Sheppard just announced the most distant solar-system object yet found. Nicknamed "FarFarOut," it's 3.5 times farther from the Sun than Pluto. https://t.co/XmWX21yYiw pic.twitter.com/KGj06QULYu— Corey S. Powell (@coreyspowell) February 22, 2019
“We need to re-observe the object again to confirm it is far, far out there,” Sheppard explained to CNN.
“Right now, we only have observed FarFarOut for a 24-hour time base. These discovery observations show FarFarOut is around 140 AU, but it could be somewhere between 130 and 150 AU as well.”
The astronomer and his team have been studying the edge of the solar system for the better part of a decade. Aside from FarOut and FarFarOut, the scientists have also discovered other interesting objects in the Kuiper Belt. One example is Goblin, a dwarf planet nestled at around 80 AU and confirmed by the team in late 2018, as previously reported by The Inquisitr.
Sheppard and his colleagues are also credited for finding another Kuiper Belt object known as Biden, which also circles the sun at a distance of 80 AU. While the team has yet to uncover any solid evidence proving or disproving the existence of Planet Nine, each new finding brings them a little closer to their goal.
“It’s exciting to be looking at sky that no one has ever imaged as deeply as we are,” said Sheppard.
“To paraphrase Forrest Gump, each image we take is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to find.”