Thursday, September 18, 2008

Haumea ya like me now?

This just in from the International Astronomical Union: We have a new dwarf planet, and its name is Haumea.

Okay, so it's not actually new: Haumea has been floating around out there in the Kuiper Belt since whenever the solar system began. (Let's not have that argument today.) What's new is its name, its official recognition by Earth's scientific community, and its status as the solar system's fifth (so far) dwarf planet.

Those of you who haven't been following the arcane inner workings of the IAU over the past few years may have missed the announcement that we have such entities as dwarf planets. On August 24, 2006, the IAU developed — for the first time — an official definition of the word planet. (You might suppose that one of the very first things that an astronomical society would come to grips with is the definition of planet, seeing that planets are among the primary objects that astronomers study. But you would be mistaken.)

That definition excluded the ninth and outermost of the traditionally accepted planets: Pluto, discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Arizona's Lowell Observatory. Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet under the IAU's nomenclatural system, along with Ceres — formerly called an asteroid — and Eris, the distant body identified in 2003.

Eris (originally designated 2003 UB313), being roughly one-fourth larger than Pluto, was at first viewed by some scientists as the Sun's tenth planet. Its discovery launched a debate within the astronomical community as to whether Pluto and Eris really ought to be considered planets at all. After much wrangling, the IAU adopted its new terminology, downgrading Pluto from planet to dwarf planet, along with Eris and the aforementioned Ceres.

Makemake, discovered in 2005, joined the ranks of the dwarf planets in July of this year. Like Pluto and Haumea, the diminutive Makemake (smaller even than Pluto) is located in the Kuiper Belt, a vast expanse beyond the orbit of Neptune that is home to thousands of gigantic chunks of space debris. Astronomers conjecture that the Kuiper Belt may contain between 30 and 40 additional dwarf planets — they're still looking, and will keep the rest of us posted.

As for Haumea, our newest dwarf planet boasts several features that make it unusual. It's believed to be ovoid or elliptical in shape — think of a humongous chicken egg — unlike the other known planets and dwarf planets, all of which are spherical (more or less). Haumea rotates at high speed, leading scientists to theorize that it and its two known moons, Hi'iaka and Namaka, are leftovers from a collision involving a larger object. Haumea and its moons travel a sharply inclined orbit outside the plane of the larger planets' orbits, helping to explain why an object of its size wasn't discovered earlier.

Following its discovery in December 2004, the body now called Haumea was nicknamed "Santa" by the cheeky skywatchers at Caltech who first identified it. (Its moons, in turn, were referred to in early reports as "Rudolph" and "Blitzen.") Of course, snugger sphincters at the IAU prevailed, resulting in the little celestial family being officially named after the Hawaiian fertility goddess and two of her daughters. Like bureaucrats in other fields, the IAU top-kicks demonstrate a frustrating lack of humor.

Haumea is far too small and distant to be seen with the unaided eye, so don't strain your optic nerve trying to spot it in the night sky. Just take comfort in knowing that a friendly dwarf planet and her moons are up there, somewhere, smiling down on us all.

Astrologers, on the other hand, are infuriated.

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