New Dwarf Planet Discovered Beyond Neptune

2015 RR245's orbit takes it 120 times further from the Sun than the Earth is. Image: OSSOS/Alex Parker

A new dwarf planet has been discovered beyond Neptune, in the disk of small icy worlds that resides there. The planet was discovered by an international team of astronomers as part of the Outer Solar Systems Origins Survey (OSSOS). The instrument that found it was the Canada-France Hawaii Telescope at Maunakea, Hawaii.

The planet is about 700 km in size, and has been given the name 2015 RR245. It was first sighted by Dr. JJ Kavelaars, of the National Research Council of Canada, in images taken in 2015. Dwarf planets are notoriously difficult to spot, but they’re important pieces of the puzzle in tracing the evolution of our Solar System.

Dr. Michele Bannister, of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, describes the moment when the planet was discovered: “There it was on the screen— this dot of light moving so slowly that it had to be at least twice as far as Neptune from the Sun.”

“The icy worlds beyond Neptune trace how the giant planets formed and then moved out from the Sun. They let us piece together the history of our Solar System. But almost all of these icy worlds are painfully small and faint: it’s really exciting to find one that’s large and bright enough that we can study it in detail.” said Bannister.

As the New Horizons mission has shown us, these far-flung, cold bodies can have exotic features in their geological landscapes. Where once Pluto, king of the dwarf planets, was thought to be a frozen body locked in time, New Horizons revealed it to be a much more dynamic place. The same may be true of RR245, but for now, not much is known about it.

The 700 km size number is really just a guess at this point. More measurements will need to be taken of its surface properties to verify its size. “It’s either small and shiny, or large and dull.” said Bannister.

As our Solar System evolved, most dwarf planets like RR245 were destroyed in collisions, or else flung out into deep space by gravitational interactions as the gas giants migrated to their current positions. RR245 is one of the few that have survived. It now spends its time the same way other dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris do, among the tens of thousands of small bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune.

RR245 has not been observed for long, so much of what’s known about its orbit will be refined by further observation. But at this point it appears to have a 700 year orbit around the Sun. And it looks like for at least the last 100 million years it has travelled its current, highly elliptical orbit. For hundreds of years, it has been further than 12 billion km (80 AU)from the Sun, but by 2096 it should come within 5 billion km (34 AU) of the Sun.

The discovery of RR 245 came as a bit of a surprise to the OSSOS team, as that’s not their primary role. “OSSOS was designed to map the orbital structure of the outer Solar System to decipher its history,” said Prof. Brett Gladman of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “While not designed to efficiently detect dwarf planets, we’re delighted to have found one on such an interesting orbit”.

OSSOS has discovered over 500 hundred trans-Neptunian objects, but this is the first dwarf planet it’s found. “OSSOS is only possible due to the exceptional observing capabilities of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. CFHT is located at one of the best optical observing locations on Earth, is equipped with an enormous wide-field imager, and can quickly adapt its observing each night to new discoveries we make. This facility is truly world leading.” said Gladman.

A lot of work has been done to find dwarf planets in the far reaches of our Solar System. It may be that RR 245 is the last one we find. If there are any more out there, they may have to wait until larger and more powerful telescopes become available. In the mid-2020’s, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will come on-line in Chile. That ‘scope features a 3200 megapixel camera, and each image it captures will be the size of 40 full Moons. It’ll be hard for any remaining dwarf planets to hide from that kind of imaging power.

As for RR 245’s rather uninspiring name, it will have to do for a while. But as the discoverers of the new dwarf planet, the OSSOS team will get to submit their preferred name for the planet. After that, it’s up the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to settle on one.

What do you think? If this is indeed the last dwarf planet to be found in our Solar System what should we call it?

The post New Dwarf Planet Discovered Beyond Neptune appeared first on Universe Today.

Thanks, Comet Pluto. Solar System Nomenclature Needs A Major Rethink

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this global view of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto can’t seem to catch a break lately. After being reclassified in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, it seemed that what had been the 9th planet of the Solar System was now relegated to the status of “dwarf planet” with the likes of Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. Then came the recent announcements that the title of “Planet 9” may belong to an object ten times the mass of Earth located 700 AU from our Sun.

And now, new research has been produced that indicates that Pluto may need to be reclassified again. Using data provided by the New Horizons mission, researchers have shown that Pluto’s interaction with the Sun’s solar wind is unlike anything observed in the Solar System thus far. As a result, it would seem that the debate over how to classify Pluto, and indeed all astronomical bodies, is not yet over.

In a study that appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research, a team of researchers from the Southwest Research Institute – with support from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics at University of Colorado and other institutions – examined data obtained by the New Horizon mission’s Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument.

Basically, solar wind effects every body in the Solar System. Consisting of electrons, hydrogen ions and alpha particles, this stream of plasma flows from our Sun to the edge of the Solar System at speeds of up to 160 million kilometers per hour. When it comes into contact with a comet, there is a discernible region behind the comet where the wind speed slows discernibly.

Meanwhile, where solar wind encounters a planet, the result is an abrupt diversion in its path. The region where this occurs around a planet is known as a “bow shock”, owing to the distinctive shape it forms. The very reason the New Horizons mission was equipped with the SWAP instrument was so that it could gather solar wind data from the edge of the Solar System and allow astronomers to create more accurate models of the environment.

But when the Southwestern Research Institute team examined the SWAP data, which was obtained during the New Horizons’ July 2015 flyby of Pluto, what they found was surprising. Previously, most researchers thought that Pluto was characterized more like a comet, which has a large region of gentle slowing of the solar wind, as opposed to the abrupt diversion solar wind encounters at a planet like Mars or Venus.

What they found instead was that the dwarf planet’s interaction with solar wind was something the fell between that of a comet and a planet. As Dr. David J. McComas – the Assistant Vice President of the Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute – said during a NASA news release about the study: “This is a type of interaction we’ve never seen before anywhere in our solar system. The results are astonishing.”

Examining both the lighter hydrogen ions that are thrown off by the Sun, and the heavier methane ions that are produced by Pluto, they found that the former showed a 20% rate of deceleration behind Pluto. This, and the bow shock Pluto produces, were both consistent with that of a comet. At the same time, they found that Pluto’s gravity was strong enough that it is able to retain the heavier methane ions, which is consistent with a planet.

Between these two readings, it seems that Pluto is something of an anomaly, behaving as something of a hybrid. Yet another surprise from a celestial body that has been full of them lately. And under the circumstances, it may lead to another round of “classification debates”, as astronomers attempt to find a new class for bodies that behave like both comets and planets.

As Alan Stern of the Southwestern Research Institute, and the principal investigator of the New Horizon’s mission, explained, “These results speak to the power of exploration. Once again we’ve gone to a new kind of place and found ourselves discovering entirely new kinds of expressions in nature.”

Further Reading: Journal of Geophysical Research

The post Thanks, Comet Pluto. Solar System Nomenclature Needs A Major Rethink appeared first on Universe Today.

How Do We Terraform Ceres?

A view of Ceres in natural colour, pictured by the Dawn spacecraft in May 2015. Credit: NASA/ JPL/Planetary Society/Justin Cowart

We continue our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming” series with a look at another body in our Solar System – the dwarf planet Ceres. Like many moons in the outer Solar System, Ceres is a world of ice and rock, and is the largest body in the Asteroid Belt. Humans beings could one day call it home, but could its surface also be made “Earth-like”?

In the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt, there are literally millions of celestial bodies to be found. And while the majority of these range in size from tiny rocks to planetesimals, there are also a handful of bodies that contain a significant percentage of the mass of the entire Asteroid Belt. Of these, the dwarf planet Ceres is the largest, constituting of about a third of the mass of the belt and being the sixth-largest body in the inner Solar System by mass and volume.

In addition to its size, Ceres is the only body in the Asteroid Belt that has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium – a state where an object becomes rounded by the force of its own gravity. On top of all that, it is believed that this dwarf planet has an interior ocean, one which contains about one-tenth of all the water found in the Earth’s oceans. For this reason, the idea of colonizing Ceres someday has some appeal, as well as terraforming.

Ceres also has the distinction of being the only dwarf planet located within the orbit of Neptune. This is especially interesting considering the fact that in terms of size and composition, Ceres is quite similar to several Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) – such as Pluto, Eris, Haumea, Makemake, and several other TNOs that are considered to be potential candidates for dwarf planets status.

The Dwarf Planet Ceres:

Current estimates place Ceres’ mean radius at 473 km, and its mass at roughly 9.39 × 1020 kg (the equivalent of 0.00015 Earths or 0.0128 Moons). With this mass, Ceres comprises approximately a third of the estimated total mass of the Asteroid Belt (between 2.8 × 1021 and 3.2 × 1021 kg), which in turn is approximately 4% of the mass of the Moon.

The next largest objects are Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea, which have mean diameters of more than 400 km and masses of 2.6 x 1020 kg, 2.11 x 1020 kg, and 8.6 ×1019 kg respectively. The mass of Ceres is large enough to give it a nearly spherical shape, which  makes it unique amongst objects and minor planets in the Asteroid Belt.

Ceres follows a slightly inclined and moderately eccentric orbit, ranging from 2.5577 AU (382.6 million km) from the Sun at perihelion and 2.9773 AU (445.4 million km) at aphelion. It has an orbital period of 1,680 Earth days (4.6 years) and takes 0.3781 Earth days (9 hours and 4 minutes) to complete a single rotation on its axis.

Based on its size and density (2.16 g/cm³), Ceres is believed to be differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle. Based on evidence provided by the Keck telescope in 2002, the mantle is estimated to be 100 km-thick, and contains up to 200 million cubic km of water, which is equivalent to about 10% of what is in Earth’s oceans, and more water than all the freshwater on Earth.

What’s more, infrared data on the surface also suggests that Ceres may have an ocean beneath its icy mantle. If true, it is possible that this ocean could harbor microbial extraterrestrial life, similar to what has been proposed about Mars, Titan, Europa and Enceladus. It has further been hypothesized that ejecta from Ceres could have sent microbes to Earth in the past.

Other possible surface constituents include iron-rich clay minerals (cronstedtite) and carbonate minerals (dolomite and siderite), which are common minerals in carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. The surface of Ceres is relatively warm, with the maximum temperature estimated to reach approximately 235 K (-38 °C, -36 °F) when the Sun is overhead.

Assuming the presence of sufficient antifreeze (such as ammonia), the water ice would become unstable at this temperature. Therefore, it is possible that Ceres may have a tenuous atmosphere caused by outgassing from water ice on the surface. The detection of significant amounts of hydroxide ions near Ceres’ north pole, which is a product of water vapor dissociation by ultraviolet solar radiation, is another indication of this.

However, it was not until early 2014 that several localized mid-latitude sources of water vapor were detected on Ceres. Possible mechanisms for the vapor release include sublimation from exposed surface ice (as with comets), cryovolcanic eruptions resulting from internal heat, and subsurface pressurization. The limited amount of data thus far suggests that the vaporization is more likely caused by sublimation from exposure to the Sun.

https://youtu.be/Inc9BtRip04

Possible Methods:

As with the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, terraforming Ceres would first require that the surface temperature be raised in order to sublimate its icy outer layer. This could be done by using orbital mirrors to focus sunlight onto the surface, by detonating thermonuclear devices on the surface, or colliding small asteroids harvested from the Main Belt onto the surface.

This would result in Ceres’ crust thawing and turning into a dense, water vapor-rich atmosphere. The orbital mirrors would once again come into play here, where they would be used to trigger photolysis and transform the water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen gas. While the hydrogen gas would be lost to space, the oxygen would remain closer to the surface.

Ammonia could also be harvested locally, since Ceres is believed to have plentiful deposits of ammonia-rich clay soils. With the introduction of specific strains of bacteria into the newly created atmospheres – such as the Nitrosomonas, Pseudomonas and Clostridium species – the sublimated ammonia could be converted into nitrites (NO²-) and then nitrogen gas. The end result would be an ocean world with seas that are 100 km in depth.

Another option would be to employ a process known as “paraterraforming” – where a world is enclosed (in whole or in part) in an artificial shell in order to transform its environment. In the case of Ceres moons, this could involve building large “Shell Worlds” to encase it, keeping the newly-created atmospheres inside long enough to effect long-term changes. Within this shell, Ceres temperature could be increased, UV lights would convert water vapor to oxygen gas, ammonia could be converted to nitrogen, and other elements could be added as needed.

In the same vein, a dome could be built over one or more of Ceres’ craters – particularly the Occator, Kerwan and Yalode craters – where the surface temperature could slowly be raised, and silicates and organic molecules could be introduced to create a terrestrial-like environment. Using water harvested from the surface, this land could be irrigated, oxygen gas could be processed, and nitrogen could be pumped in to act as a buffer gas.

Potential Benefits:

The benefits of colonizing and (para)terraforming Ceres are numerous. For instance, it would take comparatively less energy to sublimate the surface than with the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. Under normal conditions, Ceres’ surface is warm enough (and it is likely there is sufficient ammonia) that its ices are unstable.

Also, Ceres appears from all accounts to be rich in resources, which include water ices and ammonia, and has a surface that is equivalent in total land area to Argentina. Also, the surface receives an estimated 150 W/m2 of solar irradiance at aphelion, one ninth that of Earth. This level of energy is high enough that solar-power facilities could run on its surface.

And being the largest body in the asteroid belt, Ceres could become the main base and transport hub for future asteroid mining infrastructure, allowing mineral resources to be transported to Mars, the Moon, and Earth. Its small escape velocity, combined with large amounts of water ice, means that it also could process rocket fuel, water and oxygen gas on site for ships going through and beyond the Asteroid Belt.

Potential Challenges:

Despite the benefits of a colonized or transformed Ceres, there are also numerous challenges that would need to be addressed first. As always, they can be broken down into the following categories – Distance, Resources and Infrastructure, Hazards and Sustainability. For starters, Ceres and Earth are (on average) approximately 264,411,977 km apart, which is 1.7675 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun (and twice that between Earth and Mars).

Hence, any crewed mission to Ceres – which would involve the transport of both colonists, construction materials, and robotic workers – would take a considerable amount of time and involve a large expenditure in fuel. To put it in perspective, missions to Mars have taken anywhere from 150 to over 300 days, depending on how much fuel was expended. Since Ceres is roughly twice that distance, we can safely say that it would take a minimum of a year for a spacecraft to get there.

However, since these spacecraft would likely be several orders of magnitude heavier than anything previously flown to Mars – i.e. large enough to carry crews, supplies and heavy equipment – they would either need tremendous amounts of thrust to make the journey in the same amount of time, would have to spend much longer in transit, or would need more advanced propulsion systems altogether.

And while NASA currently has plans on the table to build laser-sail spacecraft that could make it Mars in three days times, these plans are not practical as far as colonization or terraforming are concerned. More than likely, advanced drive systems such as Nuclear-Thermal Propulsion (NTP) or a Fusion-drive system would be needed. And while certainly feasible, no such drive systems exist at this time.

Second, the process of building colonies on Ceres’ surface and/or orbital mirrors in orbit would require a huge commitment in material and financial resources. These could be harvested from the Asteroid Belt, but the process would be time-consuming, expensive, and require a large fleet of haulers and robotic miners. There would also need to be a string of bases between Earth and the Asteroid Belt in order to refuel and resupply these missions – i.e. a Lunar base, a permanent base on Mars, and most likely bases in the Asteroid Belt as well.

In terms of hazards, Ceres is not known to have a magnetic field, and would therefore not be shielded from cosmic rays or other forms of radiation. This would necessitate that any colonies on the surface either have significant radiation shielding, or that an orbital shield be put in place to deflect a significant amount of the radiation the planet receives. This latter idea further illustrates the problem of resource expenditure.

The extensive system of craters on Ceres attests to the fact that impactors would be a problem, requiring that they be monitored and redirected away from the planet. The surface gravity on Ceres is also quite low, being roughly 2.8% that on Earth (0.27 m/s2 vs.  9.8 m/s2). This would raise the issue of the long-term effects of near-weightlessness on the human body, which (like exposure to zero-g environments) would most likely involve loss of muscle mass, bone density, and damage to vital organs.

In terms of sustainability, terraforming Ceres presents a major problem. If the dwarf planet’s surface ice were to be sublimated, the result would be an ocean planet with depths of around 100 km. With a mean radius of less than 500 km, this means that about 21% of the planet’s diameter would consist of water. It is unlikely that such a planet (especially one with gravity as low as Ceres’) would be able to retain its oceans for long, and a significant amount of the water would likely be lost to space.

Conclusions:

Under the circumstances, it seems like it would make more sense to colonize or paraterraform Ceres than to subject it to full terraforming. However, any such venture would have to wait upon the creation of a Lunar base, a settlement on Mars, and the development of more advanced propulsion technology. It was also require the creation of a fleet of deep-space ships and an army of construction and mining robots.

However, if and when such a colony were created, the resources of the Asteroid Belt would be at our disposal. Humanity would effectively enter an age of post-scarcity, and would be in a position to mount missions deeper into the Solar System (which could include colonizing the Jovian and Cronian systems, and maybe even the Trans-Neptunian region).

So for the time being, it looks like we’ll just have to be satisfied with developing faster spacecraft, returning to the Moon, and mounting crewed missions to Mars. As they say, baby steps!

We have written many interesting articles on terraforming here at Universe Today. Here’s The Definitive Guide to Terraforming, How Do We Terraforming Mars?, How Do We Terraform Venus?, How Do We Terraform the Moon?, How Do We Terraform Mercury?, How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?, and How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

For learn more about Ceres here, here are some articles on the many bright spots captured by the Dawn probe, and what they likely are. And here are some articles on the Asteroid Belt and Why it Isn’t a Planet.

For more information, check out NASA’s Dawn – Ceres and Vesta and Dwarf Planets: Overview.

The post How Do We Terraform Ceres? appeared first on Universe Today.

The Bright Spots on Ceres are Blinking

Bright reflective material in Ceres' Occator crater, imaged by NASA's Dawn spacecraft in Sept .2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

All right, maybe not blinking like a flashlight (or a beacon on the tippity-top of a communication tower—don’t even start that speculation up) but the now-famous “bright spots” on the dwarf planet Ceres have been observed to detectably increase and decrease in brightness, if ever-so-slightly.

And what’s particularly interesting is that these observations were made not by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, currently in orbit around Ceres, but from a telescope right here on Earth.

Researchers using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument on ESO’s 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla detected “unexpected” changes in the brightness of Ceres during observations in July and August of 2015. Variations in line with Ceres’ 9-hour rotational period—specifically a Doppler effect in spectral wavelength created by the motion of the bright spots toward or away from Earth—were expected, but other fluctuations in brightness were also detected.

“The result was a surprise,”said Antonino Lanza from the INAF–Catania Astrophysical Observatory, co-author of the study. “We did find the expected changes to the spectrum from the rotation of Ceres, but with considerable other variations from night to night.”

Watch a video below illustrating the rotation of Ceres and how reflected light from the bright spots within Occator crater are alternately blue- and red-shifted according to the motion relative to Earth.

First observed with Hubble in December 2003, Ceres’ curious bright spots were resolved by Dawn’s cameras to be a cluster of separate regions clustered inside the 60-mile (90-km) -wide Occator crater. Based on Dawn data they are composed of some type of highly-reflective materials like salt and ice, although the exact composition or method of formation isn’t yet known.

Since they are made of such volatile materials though, interaction with solar radiation is likely the cause of the observed daily brightening. As the deposits heat up during the course of the 4.5-hour Ceres daytime they may create hazes and plumes of reflective particles.

“It has been noted that the spots appear bright at dawn on Ceres while they seem to fade by dusk,” noted study lead author Paolo Molaro in the team’s paper. “That could mean that sunlight plays an important role, for instance by heating up ice just beneath the surface and causing it to blast off some kind of plume or other feature.”

Once day turns to night these hazes will re-freeze, depositing the particles back down to the surface—although never in exactly the same way. These slight differences in evaporation and condensation could explain the random variation in daily brightening observed with HARPS.

These findings have been published the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (full text on arXiv here.)

Source: ESO

The post The Bright Spots on Ceres are Blinking appeared first on Universe Today.

New Dwarf Planet is Most Distant Object Yet Observed in our Solar System

It has been estimated that there may be hundreds of dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt and Oort Cloud of the outer Solar System. So far we’ve found – and actually seen – just a few. This past week, one more dwarf planet was added to the list and comes in at the most distant […]

Mysterious Bright Spots and Pyramidal Mountain Star in Dawn’s Daunting Flyover of Ceres: Video

Video caption: Take a tour of weird Ceres! Visit a 2-mile-deep crater and a 4-mile-tall mountain in the video narrated by mission director Marc Rayman. Vertical relief has been exaggerated by a factor of five to help understand the topography. Get your red/blue glasses ready for the finale – a global view of the dwarf […]

Ceres Resembles Saturn’s Icy Moons

Ceres’ topography is revealed in full (but false) color in a new map created from elevation data gathered by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, now nearly five months in orbit around the dwarf planet orbiting the Sun within the main asteroid belt. With craters 3.7 miles (6 km) deep and mountains rising about the same distance from its surface, […]

Ceres Bright Spots Sharpen But Questions Remain

The latest views of Ceres’ enigmatic white spots are sharper and clearer, but it’s obvious that Dawn will have to descend much lower before we’ll see crucial details hidden in this overexposed splatter of white dots. Still, there are hints of interesting things going on here.(…)Read the rest of Ceres Bright Spots Sharpen But Questions […]