Herschel observatory's population of trans-Neptunian objects

June 10, 2014
Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE; acknowledgements: M. Rengel and P. Lacerda (Max-Plack-Institute für Sonnensystemforschung, Germany), T. Müller (Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik) and the Herschel “TNOs are Cool” Team.

(Phys.org) —ESA's Herschel space observatory has observed 132 of the known 1400 cold worlds that inhabit a region of the Solar System beyond the orbit of Neptune, some 4.5–7.5 billion km from the Sun.

These 'trans-Neptunian objects', or TNOs, include worlds such as Pluto, Eris, Haumea and Makemake, and make up a vast population of such objects thought to occupy these far-flung reaches of the Solar System.

TNOs are particularly cold, at around –230ºC, but these lend themselves to observations by Herschel, which observes at far-infrared to sub-millimetre wavelengths. Indeed, the observed the from 132 such objects during its nearly four-year lifetime.

These measurements provided their sizes and albedos (the fraction of visible light reflected from the surface), properties that are not otherwise easily accessible. The graphic presented here shows a sample of the population of TNOs observed with Herschel, arranged to showcase these properties.

What is most striking is their diversity. They range from just below 50 km to almost 2400 km in diameter; Pluto and Eris are the largest. Two worlds have distinctly elongated shapes: Haumea (seen in white) and Varuna (brown). Some even host their own moons (not shown).

The albedo measurement implies a variety of surface compositions: low albedo (brown) is an indication of dark surface materials, such as organic material, while higher albedo (white) suggests pure ices.

TNOs are thought to be some of the most primitive remnants of the planet-forming era. Thus the results of the Herschel "TNOs are cool: A survey of the trans-Neptunian region" open key time programme are being used to test different models of Solar System formation and evolution.

Explore further: Hubble harvests distant solar system objects

Related Stories

Hubble harvests distant solar system objects

September 13, 2010

Beyond the orbit of Neptune reside countless icy rocks known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). One of the biggest, Pluto, is classified as a dwarf planet. The region also supplies us with comets such as famous Comet Halley. ...

Dwarf planet Makemake reveals its secrets for the first time

November 21, 2012

Astronomers have used three telescopes at ESO's observatories in Chile to observe the dwarf planet Makemake as it drifted in front of a distant star and blocked its light. The new observations have allowed them to check for ...

Herschel intercepts asteroid Apophis

January 9, 2013

(Phys.org)—ESA's Herschel space observatory made new observations of asteroid Apophis as it approached Earth this weekend. The data shows the asteroid to be bigger than first estimated, and less reflective.

How many planets are in the solar system?

May 28, 2013

I'm just going to warn you, this is a controversial topic. Some people get pretty grumpy when you ask: how many planets are in the Solar System? Is it eight, ten, or more?

Recommended for you

'Bathtub rings' suggest Titan's dynamic seas

July 28, 2015

Saturn's moon, Titan, is the only object in the Solar System other than Earth known to have liquid on its surface. While most of the lakes are found around the poles, the dry regions near the equator contain signs of evaporated ...

Born-again planetary nebula

July 28, 2015

Beneath the vivid hues of this eye-shaped cloud, named Abell 78, a tale of stellar life and death is unfolding. At the centre of the nebula, a dying star – not unlike our Sun – which shed its outer layers on its way to ...

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.