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Astronomers discover new dwarf planet and possible super-Earth in our Solar System


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For the longest time, the Solar System was known to have nine planets. Eventually, Pluto got downgraded to a dwarf planet due to the discovery of various other celestial bodies found in the Solar System that were of similar size. Now, astronomers have discovered another dwarf planet — dubbed 2012 VP113 and just 279.6 miles wide — orbiting the Sun. However, astronomers noticed that something seems out-of-place regarding its orbit, and speculate that the incongruence could originate from a massive body influencing VP113′s orbit — another planet, a super-Earth, that also orbits the Sun.

VP113 orbits the Sun at a distance 80 times that of Earth from the Sun; it never gets closer than 7.4 billion miles (or 12 billion kilometers) from the Sun, and can reach up to 41.6 billion miles (67 billion kilometers) away. The dwarf planet has suffered from radiation damage, which changed the composition of frozen water and carbon dioxide found on the surface, which gives the the celestial body a pink hue. While it’s certainly interesting to discover a new dwarf planet orbiting the Sun — especially one that extends the known boundary of the Solar System — the potential super-Earth that would be effectively messing up VP113′s orbit is the real gem of the discovery.


The Sun is in the center. The purple rings represent the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The blue dots represent Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Another dwarf planet, called Sedna (discovered in 2003), is represented by the orange. The orbit of VP113 is shown in red.

We don’t yet know if the super-Earth actually exists, but the gravity of a planet about 10 times the size of Earth would explain the irregular orbit of VP113. It might seem strange that we can detect the relatively tiny VP113, but couldn’t detect a planet 10 times the size of Earth, which would make it 280 times the size of the VP113. There are a couple of simple reasons this could be. If it exists, the super-Earth is most likely much, much farther away from Earth than VP113 — to the point where its larger size is negated by its extreme distance. However, astronomers have looked for large planets located in the region in the past, and didn’t find anything. That doesn’t mean that the planets aren’t there, though, as astronomers have generally looked for the hot signatures of gas giants, rather than the signatures of a more solid, cooler planet. Basically, astronomers might have just been looking for the wrong thing. (Read: Alien spotting: By 2020, we’ll finally have the ability to locate life-harboring, alien planets.)

Generally, the area in which VP113 and this possible super-Earth are located has been thought to be relatively boring — too close to have alien stars and too far away to explore anyway — but the discovery of VP113 and its potential orbit-affecting super-Earth would mean that, actually, there’s a good chance some cool stuff is out there, closer than we think.


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