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A Cold New World

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A Cold New World

The Hubble Space Telescope has measured the diameter of a distant world more than half the size of Pluto.

NASA

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see captionOct. 7, 2002: Astronomers have dubbed it "Quaoar" (pronounced kwa-whar) after a Native American god. It lies a billion kilometers beyond Pluto and moves around the Sun every 288 years in a near-perfect circle. Until recently it was just a curious point of light. That's all astronomers could see when they discovered it last June using a ground-based telescope.

But now it's a world.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has measured Quaoar and found it to be 1300 km wide. That's about 400 km wider than the biggest main-belt asteroid (Ceres) and more than half the diameter of Pluto itself. Indeed, it's the largest object in the solar system seen since the discovery of Pluto 72 years ago.

Above: An artist's concept of Kuiper Belt Object 2002 LM60, also known as Quaoar. [more]

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Quaoar is greater in volume than all known asteroids combined. Researchers suspect it's made mostly of low-density ices mixed with rock, not unlike the makeup of a comet. If so, Quaoar's mass is probably only one-third that of the asteroid belt.

Michael Brown and Chadwick Trujillo of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. are reporting these findings today at the 34th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Birmingham, Ala.

Earlier this year, Trujillo and Brown used the Palomar 48-inch telescope to discover Quaoar as an 18.5-magnitude object creeping across the summer constellation Ophiuchus. Although Quaoar was relatively bright (by the feeble standards of such distant objects) its disk was too small for the Palomar telescope to resolve.

Brown followed-up their discovery using the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble's new Advanced Camera for Surveys revealed the object's true angular size of 40 milliarcseconds, corresponding to a diameter of about 800 miles (1300 kilometers). Only Hubble has the sharpness needed to actually resolve the disk of such a distant world.

see caption
Above: Quaoar's size compared to that of Earth, Earth's moon and Pluto. [more]

Like the planet Pluto, Quaoar dwells in the Kuiper Belt, an icy debris field of comet-like bodies extending 5 billion kilometers beyond Neptune's orbit. Over the past decade more than 500 icy bodies--Kuiper-Belt Objects or "KBOs" for short--have been found there. With a few exceptions all have been significantly smaller than Pluto.

Previous record holders are a KBO called Varuna, and an object called 2002 AW197, each approximately 540 miles across (900 kilometers). Those diameters were deduced by measuring the objects' temperatures and calculating a size based on assumptions about the KBOs' reflectivity. Such estimates are less certain than Hubble's direct measurements.

Below: This actual Hubble image of Quaoar is a sum of sixteen separate exposures made with Hubble's new Advanced Camera for Surveys. [more]

see captionQuaoar (also known as 2002 LM60) hasn't been officially named yet. It's too new. The International Astronomical Union will make the final decision. Trujillo and Brown suggested "Quaoar" after a creation god of the Native American Tongva tribe--the original inhabitants of the Los Angeles basin where Caltech is located. According to legend, Quaoar "came down from heaven; and, after reducing chaos to order, laid out the world on the back of seven giants. He then created the lower animals, and then mankind."

Eventually, predicts Brown, KBOs even larger than Quaoar will be found, and Hubble will be invaluable for follow-up observations to pin down their sizes. Meanwhile, Quaoar is the record-holder--a tantalizing glimpse of perhaps bigger things to come.

Editor's note: Pluto is both a planet and a member of the Kuiper Belt. Quaoar is merely a KBO. It's too small to merit automatic planethood. If you ask a dozen astronomers how big something has to be to be called a planet, you might get a dozen different answers. The definition of planets is a topic of lively discussion and size is only one factor. For now, the solar system has 9 planets. Quaoar is not the 10th. It is, nevertheless, an impressive and intriguing new world.

more information

What Lurks in the Outer Solar System? -- (Science@NASA) It's just a matter of time, say researchers, before astronomers find something as big as Pluto in the chilly outer reaches of the solar system.

Caltech Astronomers Discover Quaoar, a Planet-Sized Object in the Solar System -- (Caltech) learn more about Quaoar and its orbit from this Caltech press release.

see captionFrequently Asked Questions about Quaoar -- answered by co-discoverer Chad Trujillo.

Right: The orbit of Quaoar (red) compared to the orbits of Pluto (P), Neptune (N), and Uranus (U). Click for a larger image.

Orbital elements of Kuiper Belt Objects including Quaoar (2002 LM60)

What is the Kuiper Belt? (University of Hawaii)

Gabrieleno/Tongva Tribal Council -- learn more about the Native American tribe that inspired this object's tentative name.

Video interview with Dr. Michael Brown, who co-discovered Quaoar.

The Planet Debate (external links): When is a Planet not a Planet? (The Atlantic); Pluto: The Planet That Used to Be (Wired); The Status of Pluto (IAU)


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