Dwarf planet has a ring to it

Dwarf planet has a ring to it

Astronomers have made an unexpected discovery about Haumea, a mysterious dwarf planet on the edge of our solar system. The discovery also marks the first time anyone has found rings around an object in the Kuiper belt, a region of icy bodies out beyond the orbit of Neptune. But Haumea is a bit different.

The study's co-author Pablo Santos Sanz suggests that a debate will continue for some time, but it is likely that it could lose dwarf planet status. Saturn's rings, for example partly came from Enceladus, one of its 53 moons. It seems that scientists keep discovering other objects - and not planets - that are being rounded by rings.

The most notable thing about Haumea's shape is that it looks like it has more in common with an egg than something in space, being twice as long in one direction than the other, possibly caused by a very fast rotation. Pluto has a rocky core but is mostly made up of ice.

Haumea was first discovered in 2004. Two separate teams of astronomers - one led by Ortiz at the Sierra Nevada Observatory, the other led by Mike Brown at Caltech in the U.S. - claimed to have discovered it in close proximity to each other, leading to a dispute that delayed its official naming.

The dwarf planet got its name after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth and fertility, according to NASA.

Hauma was also one of a handful of objects that actually led the IAU to rethink the definition of a planet altogether, and reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet. Together, these results raised questions over whether there was something unique about centaurs that made them able to host rings.

Part of what Ortiz and his colleagues found might throw a spanner in the works for Haumea's classification as a dwarf planet, though.

The group, led by José Luis Ortiz Moreno (J L Ortiz), a minor planet specialist at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Granada, presented its findings today in Nature.

In fact, all of its strangeness might be linked with Haumea and its two moons - Hi'aka and Namaka - potentially originating from a larger Haumea that was struck by something in the Kuiper Belt. The event that marked the presence of a ring-like structure was noted in the telescopes; before and after Haumea blotted out the star, the telescopes also saw the starlight slightly fade out again.Scientists also predict that the use of occultation to find a ring around Haumea may help others detect rings around similar distant objects.

The discoverer of six moons and three planetary rings-including the gossamer rings of Jupiter-Mark Showalter is now heading up the hazard planning team for New Horizon's next flyby target, a tiny object in the Kuiper belt known as MU69. An entire day on the dwarf planet lasts only four hours. Ortiz estimates that about a quarter of bodies in the outer solar system might have rings around them, although he stresses that this is still "pure speculation" for now. And we don't yet know how common features like it are either.

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