Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Astronomers find ice and possibly methane on Snow White, a distant dwarf planet

23.08.2011
Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have discovered that the dwarf planet 2007 OR10—nicknamed Snow White—is an icy world, with about half its surface covered in water ice that once flowed from ancient, slush-spewing volcanoes.

The new findings also suggest that the red-tinged dwarf planet may be covered in a thin layer of methane, the remnants of an atmosphere that's slowly being lost into space.


An artist's conception of 2007 OR10, nicknamed Snow White. Astronomers suspect that its rosy color is due to the presence of irradiated methane. Credit: NASA

"You get to see this nice picture of what once was an active little world with water volcanoes and an atmosphere, and it's now just frozen, dead, with an atmosphere that's slowly slipping away," says Mike Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor and professor of planetary astronomy, who is the lead author on a paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters describing the findings. The paper is now in press.

Snow White—which was discovered in 2007 as part of the PhD thesis of Brown's former graduate student Meg Schwamb—orbits the sun at the edge of the solar system and is about half the size of Pluto, making it the fifth largest dwarf planet. At the time, Brown had guessed incorrectly that it was an icy body that had broken off from another dwarf planet named Haumea; he nicknamed it Snow White for its presumed white color.

Soon, however, follow-up observations revealed that Snow White is actually one of the reddest objects in the solar system. A few other dwarf planets at the edge of the solar system are also red. These distant dwarf planets are themselves part of a larger group of icy bodies called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). As far as the researchers could tell, Snow White, though relatively large, was unremarkable—just one out of more than 400 potential dwarf planets that are among hundreds of thousands of KBOs.

"With all of the dwarf planets that are this big, there's something interesting about them—they always tell us something," Brown says. "This one frustrated us for years because we didn't know what it was telling us." At that time, the Near Infrared Camera (NIRC) at the Keck Observatory—which Caltech professor of physics Tom Soifer and chief instrument scientist Keith Matthews helped design in the 1990s—was the best instrument astronomers had to study KBOs, according to Brown. But NIRC had just been retired, so no one could observe 2007 OR10 in detail. "It kind of languished," he says.

Meanwhile, Adam Burgasser, a former graduate student of Brown's and now a professor at UC San Diego, was helping to design a new instrument called the Folded-port Infrared Echellette (FIRE). Last fall, Brown, Burgasser, and postdoctoral scholar Wesley Fraser used this instrument with the 6.5-meter Magellan Baade Telescope in Chile to take a closer look at 2007 OR10.

As expected, Snow White was red. But to their surprise, the spectrum revealed that the surface was covered in water ice. "That was a big shock," Brown says. "Water ice is not red." Although ice is common in the outer solar system, it's almost always white.

There is, however, one other dwarf planet that's both red and covered with water ice: Quaoar, which Brown helped discover in 2002. Slightly smaller than Snow White, Quaoar is still big enough to have had an atmosphere and a surface covered with volcanoes that spewed an icy slush, which then froze solid as it flowed over the surface.

But because Quaoar isn't as big as dwarf planets like Pluto or Eris, it could not hold onto volatile compounds like methane, carbon monoxide, or nitrogen as long. A couple of billion years after Quaoar formed, it began to lose its atmosphere to space; now, all that remains is some methane. Over time, exposure to the radiation from space turned that methane—which consists of a carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms—into long hydrocarbon chains, which look red. Like the frost that covers a lawn on a cold morning, the irradiated methane sits on Quaoar's icy surface, giving it a rosy hue.

The spectrum of 2007 OR10 looks similar to Quaoar's, suggesting that what happened on Quaoar also happened on 2007 OR10. "That combination—red and water—says to me, 'methane,'" Brown explains. "We're basically looking at the last gasp of Snow White. For four and a half billion years, Snow White has been sitting out there, slowly losing its atmosphere, and now there's just a little bit left."

Although Snow White's spectrum clearly shows the presence of water ice, Brown says, the evidence for methane is not yet definitive. To find out, the astronomers will have to use a big telescope like the one at the Keck Observatory. If it turns out that Snow White does indeed have methane, it will join Quaoar as one of only two dwarf planets that straddle the border between the handful of objects large enough to hold onto volatile compounds, and the smaller bodies that make up the vast majority of KBOs.

Another task, Brown says, is to give the dwarf planet an official name, since "Snow White" was just a nickname he and his colleagues used. Besides, the moniker no longer makes sense for describing this very red object. Before the discovery of water ice and the possibility of methane, "2007 OR10" might have sufficed for the astronomy community, since it didn't seem noteworthy enough to warrant an official name. "We didn't know Snow White was interesting," Brown says. "Now we know it's worth studying."

To learn more, visit www.mikebrownsplanets.com. The research described in the Astrophysical Journal Letters paper, "The surface composition of large Kuiper Belt Object 2007 OR10," was supported by the NASA Planetary Astronomy program.

Deborah Williams-Hedges | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.caltech.edu
http://www.mikebrownsplanets.com

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Engineering team images tiny quasicrystals as they form
18.08.2017 | Cornell University

nachricht Astrophysicists explain the mysterious behavior of cosmic rays
18.08.2017 | Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Fizzy soda water could be key to clean manufacture of flat wonder material: Graphene

Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.

As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...

Im Focus: Exotic quantum states made from light: Physicists create optical “wells” for a super-photon

Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.

Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...

Im Focus: Circular RNA linked to brain function

For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...

Im Focus: RAVAN CubeSat measures Earth's outgoing energy

An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.

The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...

Im Focus: Scientists shine new light on the “other high temperature superconductor”

A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Call for Papers – ICNFT 2018, 5th International Conference on New Forming Technology

16.08.2017 | Event News

Sustainability is the business model of tomorrow

04.08.2017 | Event News

Clash of Realities 2017: Registration now open. International Conference at TH Köln

26.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

A Map of the Cell’s Power Station

18.08.2017 | Life Sciences

Engineering team images tiny quasicrystals as they form

18.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Researchers printed graphene-like materials with inkjet

18.08.2017 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>