Astronomers have recently discovered a body orbiting the sun at a distance beyond the orbit of Pluto but larger than the diminutive ninth planet. The object is whips around the sun in an elliptical orbit that is 45 degres to the plane of the ecliptic and is 97AU out at its furthest point, but only 36AUs (and inside the orbit of Pluto) at its closest. It was discovered by a trio of astronomers working at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego on January 8th. The group studying it had planned to hold off on announcing it until they had completed their observations (for example, the team isn’t exactly sure how it big is and I have yet to see the duration of its year or day) but hackers had found a personal web site setup by one of the researchers and so the team decided they had better go public now before somebody else tried to claim credit for their discovery.

Until the International Astronomical Union agrees that it is indeed a planet (and not just another nameless Kuiper Belt object) it isn’t officially the 10th planet in the solor system and it doesn’t have a name beyond the refernce object name listed in this blog entries title. Here’s hoping the official name is a little more catchy than 2003UB313. Most astronomers now believe that Pluto probably shouldn’t be classified as a planet but instead listed as a denizen of the Kuiper Belt – but if Pluto is a planet then it would seem that anything bigger than Pluto also ought to get planetary status. I think they better start updating all those school science texts.

What I find most interesting about the news coverage (and there has been plenty today) of the discovery is the need to discuss what the surface might be like. I guess to me anything out that far and that small is preordained to be without an atmosphere and more like a giant junk of rock than a true planet. The good news is all the artists renderings I’ve seen (which make for good TV I guess) do paint that picture for you – it’s cold and rocky.

Filed under: Space

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