Thursday, March 27, 2014

Two Major Discoveries about Our Solar System


Two major finds were announced yesterday: the first rings found around an asteroid, and the most distant object -- a dwarf planet -- ever seen in our solar system. Let me fill you in on the details.

The unexpected rings were found around the asteroid Chariklo, a 150-mile wide chunk that orbits between Saturn and Uranus. A group of South American astronomers observed Chariklo moving in front of a star, and glimpsed two thin rings around it. The rings are roughly 4 and 2 miles wide and are separated by a gap of some 5 1/2 miles. In the past, when we have found distinct thin rings like this, they have been kept thin by the presence of small "shepherding moons." The analogy is the shepherds keep a flock of sheep in a thin line, and these moons keep the particles of the rings from drifting away from their formation. So we expect that one or more such moons will eventually be found around Chariklo.

How did an asteroid get itself a set of rings -- which we have previously seen only around giant planets? Our best guess is that Chariklo was involved in some sort of cosmic accident and the rings are left-over debris from that event.

By the way, Harry Potter fans and mythology buffs will appreciate the name of the asteroid. In classical mythology, Chariklo was the wife of Chiron, the best known of the Centaurs -- creatures that were half human and half horse. In the same way, the Centaurs in our solar system are also half-breeds -- they have some characteristics of asteroids and some of comets.

The second discovery was of a dwarf planet orbiting so far away from the Earth and the Sun that it is the most distant world we have seen in our solar system. The small, frozen world, estimated to be about 250 miles wide, is called 2012 VP113, a boring provisional name that includes the date of its first sighting and letters and numbers that give a code for what its order is in the discovery of small objects that year. But because the letter code happens to be VP, the discoverers have nicknamed it Biden (but that will not be its final official name.)

I can't resist noting, in case you were not aware of this, that each vice president of the U.S. already has a direct connection to the world of astronomy, since the vice-president's residence is on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Many vice-presidents brings guests to the observatory and even have parties there.

Little "Biden" (the world) is really, really out there, beyond what we think are the borders of the Kuiper Belt -- the zone of Pluto, other dwarf planets, and small icy chunks that make a belt outside the orbit of Neptune. The conventional wisdom has been that this belt should end at 50 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun (which we call 50 astronomical units), or about 4 1/2 billion miles from the Sun.

Biden, on the other hand, makes a looping orbit further out, and never gets closer to the Sun than 80 astronomical units or 7 1/2 billion miles. And most of the time is is even further out. (Another object found earlier, now called Sedna, is also out there.) The presence of such "far-out" members of our solar system, while not impossible, is surprising enough that astronomers are now set to pondering what got them out there.

Our image shows an artist's conception (no one has a photo of it) of what Chariklo and its two rings might look like out there, provided by the European Southern Observatory.

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