A newly-discovered dwarf planet, 2012 VP113, has been discovered at the edge of the solar system, far beyond the orbit of Pluto. To add to its odd nature, this newest member of our planetary family is pink.
Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Chadwick Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory made the discovery using a ground-based telescope in Chile. They announced the new finding on 26 March.
This frozen body has a surface temperature of 430 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and is roughly 280 miles from one side to another. This means a driver in a car traveling 60 miles an hour would take about 4 hours and 40 minutes to travel around the icy link planet at the equator. The dwarf planet orbits the Sun at a distance 80 times further away than the Earth.
The solar system is surrounded by a cloud of billions of tiny bodies, made up of rock and ice, called the Oort Cloud. Comets originate in this region of space, until they are nudged toward the Sun. They then plummet on a trip to the inner solar system. This new addition to the known solar system is likely one of those objects, orbiting in the innermost part of the sphere.
Discovery of this new dwarf planet could suggest that another planet, ten times larger than the Earth, could orbit even further from the Sun than 2012 VP113. Such an undiscovered planet could explain some fluctuations in the orbit of the newly-discovered dwarf planet, as well as other bodies in the far reaches of the solar system.
"Some of these inner Oort cloud objects could rival the size of Mars or even Earth. This is because many of the inner Oort cloud objects are so distant that even very large ones would be too faint to detect with current technology," Sheppard said.
Discovery of 2012 VP113 could force astronomers to rethink what constitutes the boundary where planets reside. It also brings into question many of the theories astronomers had about the formation of our family of planets.
"It goes to show that there's something we don't know about our Solar System, and it's something important. We're starting to get a taste of what's out beyond what we consider the edge," Trujillo said.
Sedna, a large dwarf planet discovered in 2003, takes 11,400 years to travel once around the Sun.
"Finding Sedna so far away seemed odd and potentially a fluke. But this one is beginning to make it look like that might be a typical place for objects to be. Not at all what I would have guessed," Mike Brown, astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, wrote in an email to the Associated Press.
This new dwarf planet already has an informal nickname, Biden, from the VP in the official designation of the object.