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Pluto Has a New Little Friend

Following the news of measurements showing that that everyone’s favorite former planet Pluto is the biggest of the dwarf planets, the journal Nature reports that astronomers have discovered a smaller dwarf in Pluto’s remote neck of the solar system, 12 billion km or 7 1/2 billion miles from the sun.

The frozen pink dwarf was spotted on November 5, 2012, by Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii. They tracked it by taking hourly photographs with the Dark Energy Camera on the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory telescope in Chile. Trujillo was part of the team that in 2003 found Sedna, the only other known dwarf in the inner Oort cloud.

Composite of three photos of 2012 VP113 in orbit (colored red, green and blue for cl;arity)

Composite of three photos of 2012 VP113 in orbit (colored red, green and blue for clarity)

2012 VP113, its current boring name, is 280 miles across – about half the diameter of Sedna – with a temperature of approximately minus 430 degrees Fahrenheit. At the furthest point in its orbit, 2012 VP113 is 44 billion miles (70 billion km) from the sun and takes over 4,000 years to complete one orbit. The faint pink color is due to radiation affecting the surface of frozen water, methane and carbon dioxide.

2012 VP113 is the third farthest known object in the solar system after the dwarf planets Eris and Sedna. Sheppard and Trujillo believe thousands more frozen rocks will be found in the inner Oort cloud, a region that astronomers speculate could have been formed by a rogue planet or from debris from a passing star or a passing planet orbiting a nearby star.

Orbits of 2012 VP113 (red), Sedna (orange), Kuiper Belt & Pluto (blue dots) and four largest planets

Orbits of 2012 VP113 (red), Sedna (orange), Kuiper Belt & Pluto (blue dots) and four largest planets

Poor 2012 VP113 has barely been discovered and is already being dragged both literally and gravitationally into the Planet X speculation. Since both 2012 VP113 and Sedna travel in similar long elliptical orbits, Sheppard says:

If you took a Super Earth and put it a few hundred astronomical units out, the gravity could shepherd Sedna and this new object into the orbits they have.

For now, let’s just welcome 2012 VP133 to the neighborhood and lobby for a better name.

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