July 12, 2016

New dwarf planet discovered in the Kuiper Belt

Located far beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt, a recently discovered dwarf planet named 2015 RR245 can be up to 120 times further away from the sun than Earth and takes approximately 700 years to complete a single orbit, the International Astronomical Union has announced.

According to CNET and ScienceAlert, 2015 RR245 as a diameter of about 700 kilometers (435 miles), although more accurate measurements will need to be made to verify its exact size, and it has a gargantuan orbit that, at closest approach, will bring it to within five billion km of the sun in 2096. It was found by members of the Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS).

“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,” OSSOS team member Dr. Michelle Bannister from the University of Victoria in British Columbia said in a statement. “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.”

While the Survey has identified more than 500 trans-Neptunian objects thus far, 2015 RR245 is being hailed as its most significant discovery yet. It was first sighted by Dr. JJ Kavelaars of the National Research Council of Canada, who spotted it in images originally captured in September 2015 using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Maunakea, Hawaii.

Scientists aren't yet sure about the new dwarf planet's appearance, but further examination is underway.

Scientists aren't yet sure about the new dwarf planet's appearance, but further examination is underway. (Credit: NASA)

Further analysis needed to unlock this galactic ‘time capsule’

Currently, there are many questions surrounding this newfound dwarf planet, Bannister noted. Chief among them is its exact size, which cannot be precisely determined until researchers can conduct further measurements of its surface properties. While the object is at least twice as far from the Sun as Neptune, it is not yet known is if is “small and shiny, or large and dull.”

Likewise, as it has only been observed for one year in its 700-year orbit, where it originally came from and how its orbit will change over time are also uncertain. Over the next few years, its orbit will be refined and RR245 will be given an official name. It is the largest discovery, and thus far the only dwarf planet, found by OSSOS, a collaboration of 50 scientists from various universities and institutes all over the world conducting research since 2013.

“OSSOS was designed to map the orbital structure of the outer Solar System to decipher its history. While not designed to efficiently detect dwarf planets, we're delighted to have found one on such an interesting orbit,” explained University of British Columbia professor Brett Gladman. He and his colleagues believe that RR245 could be one of the last dwarf planets to be discovered before larger instruments become available for use in the new future.

The discovery of dwarf planet such as this are of vital importance to researchers, Pedro Lacerda of the Queen’s University Belfast Astrophysics Research Centre told The Guardian. Such worlds are “extremely rich and complex,” as New Horizons’ analysis of Pluto has revealed, and “are the closest thing to a time capsule that transports us to the birth of the solar system,” he added. “You can make an analogy with fossils, which tell us about creatures long gone. 2015 RR245 is much smaller than Pluto, about one-third as wide, so it tells us things that Pluto cannot.”


Image credit: Alex Parker/OSSOS