A possible “missing link” has been discovered in orbit around the Sun close to Pluto. While it would be a lot cooler if this was the ‘half-ape, half-man’ kind of missing link found floating frozen in space and proving ancient astronaut speculation to be true, this curious object is more of the ‘half-planetoid, half-asteroid which may prove planetary formation theories true’ type of missing link. The Japanese astronomers who discovered this mysterious space object believe it could help further explain how planets in our Solar System formed, and in the process shed light on the origins of Earth as we know it.
The object was discovered by astronomers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) who spent 60 hours with small 11-inch telescopes observing 2,000 different stars looking for any objects which might pass in front of them. That old-school space sleuthing paid off, because the astronomers found evidence of a tiny body known as a planetesimal orbiting the Sun close to Pluto. Planetesimals are protoplanets, small planet-like objects around 1 kilometer in diameter. Given enough time, these objects’ gravity can attract enough matter to become full-fledged planets. The full study of this new planetesimal has been published in Nature Astronomy.
“This is a real victory for little projects. Our team had less than 0.3 percent of the budget of large international projects. We didn’t even have enough money to build a second dome to protect our second telescope! Yet we still managed to make a discovery that is impossible for the big projects,” astronomer Ko Arimatsu said in a NAOJ press release. Geez, somebody get these guys some funding.
The object is estimated to be around 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) in diameter and orbits the sun in the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt is becoming one of the most-studied areas of our Solar System. This belt of asteroids and objects like this new planetesimal is thought to contain answers to some of the as yet unsolved mysteries of our cosmic neighborhood. How could this tiny planetesimal be related to the long-suspected Planet 9, if such a planet exists at all?
Whether or not this discovery turns out to be Earth-shattering astronomical news, it shows that a bunch of dudes with retail-level telescopes on their roof can still discovery new objects within our Solar System. How cool is that?