A majority of dwarf planets lie tucked away in the depths of our solar system.
A handful have been identified in the last decade thanks to new technology, but many remain a mystery, undiscovered by astronomers.
However, scientists believe they have stumbled upon the largest unnamed world in our solar system after analyzing data from two space observatories, according to a new report by NASA.
The world, 2007 OR10, is much larger than astronomers previously thought, making it the third largest dwarf planet on a list of half a dozen worlds. Scientists believe there may be thousands of worlds like this in our solar system.
Many dwarf planets are hard to detect because they look like tiny points of light. It is hard to tell if that light is coming from a small world or a large world. That was one of the challenges of finding 2007 OR10. Although its elliptical orbit brings it as close to our sun as Neptune, the eighth planet in our solar system, 2007 OR10 is twice as far away as Pluto.
Using Kepler, NASA’s planet-hunting space telescope, and archival data from European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory mission, astronomers were able to revise the size of 2007 OR10.
The world has a diameter of 955 miles, making it about one-third Pluto’s size, according to findings published in the Astronomical Journal in April.
“Our revised larger size for 2007 OR10 makes it increasingly likely the planet is covered in volatile ices of methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen, which would be easily lost to space by a smaller object,” said András Pál at Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, who led the research. “It’s thrilling to tease out details like this about a distant, new world — especially since it has such an exceptionally dark and reddish surface for its size.”
One observation scientists have made is that 2007 OR10 is a very dark world, which could give us clues about the early history of our solar system
“We think this object is left over from when our sun and solar system first formed,” NASA scientist Geert Barentsen said. “It’s almost as old as the sun itself.”
The reason 2007 OR10 is so dark is because it’s likely frozen material that reflects very little sunlight. Scientists are interested in studying the world in order to learn more about how Earth formed.
“It may be one of the darkest dwarf planets in our solar system,” Barentsen said.
It’s up to the team of astronomers who discovered 2007 OR10 to give the world a name. Usually dwarf planets are named after a certain characteristic, but astronomers didn’t know enough about 2007 OR10 to officially name it until now, according to Meg Schwamb, who was one of the astronomers to identify the world in 2007 during a survey.
With the exception of Ceres, which is the largest object in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, almost all other minor planets are floating beyond Neptune.
The chances of us reaching 2007 OR10 in our lifetime are slim, especially because it has taken scientists about a decade to reach Pluto. But we can still learn a lot about this world with our current satellite technology, Barentsen said.