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Dwarf planet discovery hints at a hidden Super Earth in solar system

Astronomers have increased the size of the observable solar system after spotting a 450-km wide object orbiting the sun.

The lump of ice and rock circles the sun at a greater distance than any known object, and never gets closer than 12bn kilometres – 80 times the distance from Earth to the sun.

If its size is confirmed it could qualify as a dwarf planet in the same category as Pluto. Researchers said the discovery proves the existence of the inner Oort cloud, a region of icy bodies that lies far beyond the orbit of Neptune – which at 4.5bn kilometres from the sun is the most remote planet in the solar system.

Until a proper name is decided upon, the body is known only as 2012 VP113. According to the science journal Nature, the team that discovered it call it VP for short, or “Biden”, after US vice president Joe Biden.

Its pink tinge comes from radiation damage that alters the make-up of frozen water, methane and carbon dioxide on the surface.

Though exciting in its own right, the discovery raises a more tantalising prospect for many astronomers: that a “Super Earth” up to 10 times the mass of our planet orbits the sun at such a great distance that it has never been seen.

Newly discovered dwarf planet 2012 VP<sub>113</sub>

Three images of the newly discovered dwarf planet 2012 VP113 taken about two hours apart on 5 November 2012. Photograph: Scott S Sheppard/Carnegie Institution for Science

Astronomers found 2012 VP113 by taking snapshots of the night sky an hour or so apart with an instrument called the Dark Energy Camera on the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory telescope in Chile. When they turned the images into a time-lapse movie of the sky, they could see the new body moving against the background of stationary stars.

“This object has the most distant orbit known,” Scott Sheppard at the Carnegie Institution of Washington told the Guardian. “It extends the known boundary of the observable solar system.”

The object’s orbit brings it as close as 12bn kilometres from the sun, and swings out as far as 67bn kilometres. There are comets that come from even farther out, but they pass much closer to our home planet.

The solar system has three distinct regions. Closest to the sun are the rocky planets, such as Venus, Earth and Mars. Farther out are the gas giants, such as Saturn and Jupiter. More distant still, beyond the orbit of Neptune, is a band of icy objects called the Kuiper belt.

In 2003, astronomers found an object beyond the Kuiper belt, which they called Sedna. For more than a decade, the object was a loner, an anomaly in the solar system. But the new body, 2012 VP113, lurks in the same no-man’s land of space, leading astronomers to believe there could be thousands of similar bodies waiting to be discovered there.

“People wondered if Sedna was unique, and 10 years on, we have at last found another object that shows it is not. There is probably a large population of objects out there,” Sheppard said.

The dwarf planet 2012 VP<sub>113</sub>

The dwarf planet (coloured dots). Three images, each taken about two hours apart, were combined into one. The first was artificially colored red, second green and third blue. The background stars and galaxies did not move and so their red, green and blue images combine to show up as white sources. Photograph: Scott S Sheppard/Carnegie Institution for Science

The region of space where Sedna and 2012 VP113 were found is called the inner Oort cloud. Astronomers are unsure how this remote cloud of objects formed, but there are three competing theories. One is that a rogue planet was flung out of the early solar system and dragged the Oort cloud material with it.

Another is that the material was pulled out of the inner solar system by a passing star. The third option has the same job done by planets orbiting stars born in the same cluster as the sun.

“What is exciting about this work is that we know the inner Oort cloud is there. This is the second object we know of, and it’s a smoking gun,” said Meg Schwamb, a planetary scientist at the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Academica Sinica in Taiwan. By studying the objects, astronomers hope to confirm how the inner Oort cloud formed.

Sheppard found the new object, reported in Nature, with fellow astronomer, Chad Trujillo, who works at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii. Trujillo was a co-discoverer of Sedna in 2003.

The latest work has already thrown up an intriguing possibility. The angle of the body’s orbit and that of Sedna’s are strikingly similar, an effect most likely caused by the gravitational tug of another, unseen body. One possibility is a “Super Earth” that traces so large an orbit around the sun that it has never been seen.

“If you took a Super Earth and put it a few hundred astronomical units out, the gravity could shepherd Sedna and this new object into the orbits they have,” said Sheppard. An astronomical unit (AU) is around 150m kilometres, or the mean distance from Earth to the sun.

Earlier this month, Nasa’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (Wise) reported the results from its search for “Planet X”, a hypothesised planet far out in the solar system. It found no evidence for a new planet larger than Saturn within 10,000 AU of the sun. But Saturn is 95 times more massive than Earth, so a smaller Super Earth could go undetected in that region.

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Space

Voyager 2 has discovered something amazing: Denser space outside the solar system

In November 2018, after a 41-year voyage, Voyager 2 crossed the boundary beyond which the Sun’s influence ends, and entered interstellar space. But the mission of the little probe is not yet complete – it continues to make amazing discoveries

Perhaps the probes have found some kind of traffic jam at the edge of the solar system. The Voyager flight continues and we will soon find out what it was.

Voyager 2 discovered something amazing: as the distance from the Sun increases, the density of space increases.

Voyager 1, which entered interstellar space in 2012, transmitted similar indicators to Earth. New data have shown that the increase in density may be a feature of the interstellar medium.

The solar system has several boundaries, one of which, called the heliopause, is determined by the solar wind, or rather by its significant weakening. The space inside the heliopause is the heliosphere, and the space outside is the interstellar medium. But the heliosphere is not round. It looks more like an oval, in which the solar system is at the leading edge, and a kind of tail stretches behind it.

Both Voyagers crossed the heliopause at the leading edge, but within 67 degrees heliographic latitude and 43 degrees longitude apart.

Interstellar space is usually considered a vacuum, but this is not entirely true. The density of matter is extremely small, but it still exists. In the solar system, the solar wind has an average density of protons and electrons from 3 to 10 particles per cubic centimeter, but it is lower the further from the Sun.

The average concentration of electrons in the interstellar space of the Milky Way is estimated to be about 0.037 particles per cubic centimeter. And the plasma density in the outer heliosphere reaches approximately 0.002 electrons per cubic centimeter. When the Voyager probes crossed the heliopause, their instruments recorded the electron density of the plasma through plasma oscillations.

Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause on August 25, 2012 at a distance of 121.6 astronomical units from the Earth (121.6 times the distance from Earth to the Sun – about 18.1 billion km). When he first measured plasma oscillations after crossing the heliopause on October 23, 2013 at a distance of 122.6 astronomical units (18.3 billion km), he found a plasma density of 0.055 electrons per cubic centimeter.

After flying another 20 astronomical units (2.9 billion kilometers), Voyager 1 reported an increase in the density of interstellar space to 0.13 electrons per cubic centimeter.

Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause on November 5, 2018 at a distance of 119 astronomical units (17.8 billion kilometers. On January 30, 2019, it measured plasma oscillations at a distance of 119.7 astronomical units (17.9 billion kilometers), finding that the density plasma is 0.039 electrons per cubic centimeter.

In June 2019, Voyager 2’s Instruments showed a sharp increase in density to about 0.12 electrons per cubic centimeter at a distance of 124.2 astronomical units (18.5 billion kilometers).

What caused the increase in the density of space? One theory is that the lines of force of the interstellar magnetic field become stronger with distance from the heliopause. This can cause electromagnetic ion cyclotron instability. Voyager 2 did detect an increase in the magnetic field after crossing the heliopause.

Another theory is that the material carried away by the interstellar wind should slow down in the heliopause, forming a kind of plug, as evidenced by the weak ultraviolet glow detected by the New Horizons probe in 2018, caused by the accumulation of neutral hydrogen in the heliopause.

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NASA has banned fighting and littering on the moon

New details of the agreement signed by representatives of a number of countries on the development of the moon and the extraction of minerals within the framework of the Artemis program have appeared. Reported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

So, astronauts involved in the mission are prohibited from littering and fighting on the territory of a natural satellite of the Earth.

So, we present to you the new rules for being on the Moon:

Everyone comes in peace;

Confidentiality is prohibited, all launched objects must be identified and registered;

All travel participants agree to help each other in case of emergencies;

All received data is transferred to the rest of the participants, and space systems must be universal;

Historic sites must be preserved and all rubbish must be disposed of;

Rovers and spacecraft should not interfere with other participants.

“”It is important not only to go to the moon with our astronauts, but also that we bring our values ​​with us,” said Mike Gold, acting head of NASA’s international and inter-agency relations.

According to him, violators of the above rules will be asked to “just leave” the territory of the moon.

The effect of these principles so far applies to eight signatory countries of the agreement: the USA, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Countries other than China can join if they wish.

 It should be noted that at the moment NASA is prohibited from signing any bilateral agreements with the PRC leadership.

The first NASA mission to the moon, known as “Artemis 1”, is scheduled for 2021 without astronauts, and “Artemis 2” will fly with a crew in 2023.

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Methane snow found on the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains

Scientists believe that it arose as a result of the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above the surface of the planet.

In the images of the Cthulhu region – a dark region in the equatorial regions of Pluto – planetary scientists have found large reserves of methane snow that covers the peaks of local mountains and hills. It formed quite differently from how snow forms on Earth, astronomers write in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

“The white caps on the tops of Pluto’s mountains did not arise from the cooling of air currents that rise along the slopes into the upper atmosphere, as it happens on Earth, but from the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above Pluto’s surface. This gas condensed on the mountain tops, “the scientists write.

We owe almost everything we know about Pluto to the New Horizons interplanetary station. It was launched in January 2006, and in mid-July 2015 the station reached the Pluto system. New Horizons flew just 13 thousand km from the dwarf planet, taking many photographs of its surface. 

New Horizons data indicated an interesting feature of Pluto – in its depths, a giant subglacial ocean of liquid water can be hidden. It can be a kind of engine of those geological processes, traces of which can be seen on the surface of a dwarf planet. Because of this discovery of New Horizons, many discussions began among planetary scientists. Scientists are trying to understand how such a structure could have arisen, as well as to find out the appearance of Pluto in the distant past.

Members of the New Horizons science team and their colleagues from France, led by planetary scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center (USA) Tanguy Bertrand, have discovered another unusual feature of Pluto. They studied the relief of one of the regions of the dwarf planet – the Cthulhu region. This is what astronomers call a large dark region at Pluto’s equator, which is whale-like in shape and is covered in many craters, mountains and hills.

Snow in Pluto’s mountains

By analyzing images of these structures taken by the LORRI camera installed on board New Horizons, astronomers have noticed many blank spots on the slopes of the highest mountain peaks. Having studied their composition, scientists have found that they consist mainly of methane.

Initially, planetary scientists assumed that these are deposits of methane ice. However, Bertrand and his colleagues found that the slopes and even the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains are actually covered not only with ice, but also with exotic methane snow that forms right on their surface.

Planetary scientists came to this conclusion by calculating how methane behaves in Pluto’s atmosphere. In doing so, they took into account how the molecules of its gases interact with the sun’s rays and other heat sources. It turned out that at the equator of Pluto, at an altitude of 2-3 km from its surface, due to the special nature of the movement of winds, unique conditions have formed, due to which snow is formed from methane vapor.

Unlike Earth, where such deposits are formed as a result of the rise of warm air into the upper atmosphere, on Pluto this process goes in the opposite direction – as a result of contact of the cold surface of the peaks and slopes of mountains with warm air masses from the relatively high layers of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.

Previously, as noted by Bertrand and his colleagues, scientists did not suspect that this was possible. The fact is that they did not take into account that due to the deposition of even a small amount of methane snow and ice, the reflectivity of the peaks and slopes of mountains in the Cthulhu region increases. As a result, their surface temperature drops sharply, and snow forms even faster.

Scientists suggest that another mysterious feature of Pluto’s relief could have arisen in a similar way – the so-called Tartarus Ridges, located east of the Sputnik plain. A distinctive feature of this mountainous region is strange peaks that are shaped like skyscrapers or blades. Bertrand and his colleagues suggest that these peaks are also methane ice deposits that grow “from top to bottom.”

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