Astronomers have detected a new dwarf planet within our Solar System. The planetoid, which has been found to orbit far beyond Pluto (the debatable dwarf planet), is now considered — if confirmed — the most distant planet of any size yet detected within the gravitational sway of the Sun.
Space.com reported November 12 that the major astronomical object, dubbed V774104, is located roughly between two-to-three times the distance of Pluto from the Sun. Considering its size — it is half the size of Pluto — its detection was a feat in and of itself. Study of the dwarf planet has only just begun, so astronomers are not yet certain whether or not V774104 exhibits a highly elongated orbit around the sun (making it closer to or farther from the Sun) like its sister dwarf world, Pluto.
“That’s pretty much all we know about it,” astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science and a co-discoverer of the new object, said in an interview with Space.com. “We don’t know its orbit yet because we only just discovered it about two weeks ago.”
The announcement was made this week at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) Division for Planetary Sciences, Sheppard said. He explained that he and Chadwick Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, and Dave Tholen with the University of Hawaii were working on observing outer Solar System objects.
“We’re doing the widest, deepest survey ever for outer solar system objects,” Sheppard told Space.com. “We’re using the 8-meter [26 feet] Subaru Telescope in Hawaii. We’re just looking for things beyond the Kuiper Belt, beyond Pluto.”
V774104 is just the latest large object — and the most distant — found in the deep reaches of the Solar System in an area filled with asteroids and comets called the Oort Cloud. This extensive cosmic debris field is considerably more distant than Pluto’s asteroid-strewn neighborhood, which is known as the Kuiper Belt. Thus far, two other dwarf planets (like Pluto), Makemake and Haumea, have been discovered in the Kuiper Belt. Eris, another relatively nearby dwarf, is considered by some astronomers to inhabit the Kuiper Belt (others consider it part of the “scattered disc,” a region that overlaps the Kuiper Belt and extends out toward the Oort Cloud.
Within the Oort Cloud, astronomers had detected two other “distant detached objects” prior to the discovery of V774104. Sedna was the first of these objects and is believed to be a dwarf planet. The other object, designated 2012 VP113, made news when it was unofficially designated, for obvious reasons, “Biden.” It, too, was discovered by Sheppard and Trujillo. A fourth object, 2000 CR105 may also vie for dwarf planet status but further study is required. However, no astronomical institution has yet qualified any of the Oort Cloud objects as dwarf planets.