Researchers from the University of Michigan have discovered a new dwarf planet in our solar system – a world that is 330 miles across, located approximately 8.5 billion miles from the sun, and takes 1,100 years to complete a single orbit, various media outlets are reporting.
The new world is currently known as 2014 UZ224, and according to Space.com and Astronomy Magazine, it is smaller than Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, and is now the third farthest object in the solar system. It is located in an area of the Kuiper Belt beyond the gravitational influence of Neptune and was located using an instrument called the Dark Energy Camera (DECam).
The discovery, which was made by a team of students lead by physics and astronomy professor David Gerdes, is somewhat unusual for the way that the dwarf planet was found. Typically, new worlds are discovered when scientists make observations across consecutive nights. However, in 2014 UZ224’s case, detections of the object came far more sporadically.
“Objects in the solar system, when you observe them at one instant and then a little while later, they appear to be in a different place in the sky,” Gerdes told NPR. In this case, however, he and his colleagues “often just have a single observation of the thing, on one night. And then two weeks later one observation, and then five nights later another observation, and four months later another observation. So the connecting-the-dots problem is much more challenging.”
Is it actually a dwarf planet, and did they also find Planet Nine?
Despite the difficulty, however, the UM researchers were able to use computer software capable of discerning the basic orbit of the newfound object (although its exact path of movement around the sun remains somewhat unclear). It is also uncertain if the object is actually a dwarf planet.
As Space.com explains, the smallest confirmed dwarf planet discovered to date is Ceres, which is 590 miles across, or 260 miles wider than 2014 UZ224. The world discovered by Gerdes’ team may be too small to actually earn the title of dwarf planet, according to reports. The decision will ultimately be up to the International Astronomical Union, but if confirmed, it would become the fifth officially recognized dwarf planet in our solar system.
In addition to the discovery of 2014 UZ224 Gerdes told NPR that his team may have also gotten an image of the so-called Planet Nine, a yet unconfirmed planet astronomers believe exists in the outer edges of the solar system and which is believed to be 10 times more massive than Earth. To date, there have been no actual sightings of this hypothesized new world.
“I’m excited about our chances of finding [Planet Nine]. I’m excited about the chances of the people in this room finding it,” he told the media outlet during in an interview conducted last month. “Of course I’m happy for humanity if someone else finds it. It would be the most exciting astronomical discovery in our lifetime, I think.” While no astronomers have been successful thus far, Gerdes told NPR that “the hunt” for the undiscovered world “is on.”
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SS