September 19, 2008

Dwarf Planet Named for Hawaiian Goddess

Pluto and its dwarf planet brethren have a new friend.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced the
name of a new dwarf planet to join the existing four in the solar system.

The object previously known as 2003 EL61 is now named
Haumea, after the goddess of childbirth and fertility in Hawaiian mythology.
The name was decided by members of the International Astronomical Union's
Committee on Small Body Nomenclature and the IAU Working Group for Planetary
System Nomenclature.

The discovery of the odd, football-shaped Haumea was first
in 2005. It was found by a group led by Jose-Luis Ortiz of the
Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain, as well as a team led by Mike Brown of
Caltech, who was also behind the discovery of the dwarf planet Eris.

Brown and his team initially spotted the dwarf planet in
December 2004 just after Christmas, leading them to nickname it "Santa"
due to the then-holiday season, the planet hunter wrote in a blog entry this
week. The new name was suggested by co-discoverer David Rabinowitz of Yale
University, who believed it particularly apt since the goddess Haumea also
represents the element stone and observations of 2003 EL61 found it to be
composed almost entirely of rock with a pure ice crust, Brown added.

Haumea joins Ceres, Pluto, Eris and Makemake as the fifth
dwarf planet in our
solar system
. Pluto was re-classified from planet to dwarf planet in 2006,
following the discovery of Eris.

The new dwarf planet has the same diameter as Pluto, but is
much thinner, and contains about 32 percent of Pluto's mass. Scientists suggest
Haumea's long, narrow shape arose from its rapid spin -- it rotates about once
every four hours.

Haumea is currently about 50 times as far from the sun as
Earth is, but its orbit can swing it in as close as 35 times the sun-Earth
distance. It is part of the trans-Neptunian class of cold and rocky objects in
the outer solar system.

Two small companion objects, thought to have been knocked
Haumea's body by past impacts, keep the dwarf planet company. The two
moons were also re-designated with new names: Hi'iaka and Namaka, after the two
children born to the goddess Haumea in Hawaiian myth. In the story, Haumea's
children were created out of parts of her own body, just as the dwarf planet's
two moons were apparently born out of itself.