Astronomers Measured Mass of Largest Dwarf Planet

June 18, 2007
Astronomers Measure Mass of Largest Dwarf Planet

Aptly named after the Greek goddess of conflict, the icy dwarf planet, Eris, has rattled the general model of our solar system. The object was discovered by astronomer Mike Brown of Caltech in the outer reaches of the Kuiper belt in 2005.

Its detection provoked debate about Pluto’s classification as a planet. Eris is slightly larger than Pluto.

So if Pluto qualified as a full-fledged planet, then Eris certainly should too. Astronomers attending the International Astronomical Union meeting in 2006 worked to settle this dilemma. In the end, we lost a planet rather than gaining one. Pluto was demoted and reclassified as a dwarf planet along with Eris and the asteroid Ceres, the most massive member of the asteroid belt.

Adding insult to injury for the former ninth planet, Brown has now determined that Eris is also more massive than Pluto. This new detail was determined by observations of Eris’ tiny moon Dysnomia. The Hubble Space Telescope and Keck Observatory took images of the moon’s movement, from which Brown precisely calculated Eris to be 27 percent more massive than Pluto. In fact, if you scooped up all the asteroids in the asteroid belt they would fit inside Eris, with a lot of room to spare.

Currently, Eris is more than three times farther from the Sun than Pluto. It is so cold out there that the dwarf planet’s atmosphere has frozen onto the surface as a frosty glaze. The coating gleams brightly, reflecting as much sunlight as fresh fallen snow. The path Eris takes around the Sun is shaped like an oval rather than a circle. In about 290 years, Eris will move close enough to the Sun to partially thaw. Its icy veneer will melt away revealing a rocky, speckled landscape similar to Pluto’s.

Source: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, by Ray Villard

Explore further: What is A dwarf planet?

Related Stories

What is A dwarf planet?

August 18, 2015

The term dwarf planet has been tossed around a lot in recent years. As part of a three-way categorization of bodies orbiting the sun, the term was adopted in 2006 due to the discovery of objects beyond the orbit of Neptune ...

The dwarf planet Haumea

August 14, 2015

The Trans-Neptunian region has become a veritable treasure trove of discoveries in recent years. Since 2003, the dwarf planets and "plutoids" of Eris, Sedna, Makemake, Quaoar, and Orcus were all observed beyond the orbit ...

The dwarf planet Ceres

August 12, 2015

The asteroid belt is a pretty interesting place. In addition to containing between 2.8 and 3.2 quintillion metric tons of matter, the region is also home to many minor planets. The largest of these, known as Ceres, is not ...

Eris' moon Dysnomia

July 29, 2015

Ask a person what Dysnomia refers to, and they might venture that it's a medical condition. In truth, they would be correct. But in addition to being a condition that affects the memory (where people have a hard time remembering ...

What is the newest planet?

July 7, 2015

With astronomers discovering new planets and other celestial objects all the time, you may be wondering what the newest planet to be discovered is. Well, that depends on your frame of reference. If we are talking about our ...

Recommended for you

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

Dawn spacecraft sends sharper scenes from Ceres

August 25, 2015

The closest-yet views of Ceres, delivered by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, show the small world's features in unprecedented detail, including Ceres' tall, conical mountain; crater formation features and narrow, braided fractures.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.