Feeds

ESO says dwarf planet Makemake lacks atmosphere

First look at Kuiper Belt object also reveals no shroud of gases

Boost IT visibility and business value

Makemake, one of the solar system’s five dwarf planets, has been found to have no atmosphere.

The tiny ball of rock is just two-thirds the size of Pluto and orbits even farther out in the Kuiper Belt.

Scientists had posited the dwarf planet, named for the creator god in Easter Island mythology, would possess an atmosphere, because it appeared sufficiently bright to hint at the presence of ice. Even in the outer reaches of the solar ice can evaporate. The resulting gas cannot achieve escape velocity and becomes an atmosphere.

That process is thought to account for atmospheres on other dwarf planets. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) says Eris , the largest of the dwarf planets, probably has an atmosphere as a result of its icy surface. Pluto, the Observatory says, definitely has one, even if it is very tenuous with pressure just “one hundred thousandth of that on Earth, or about 0.015 millibars.”

The ESO was able to discern those facts after Eris and Pluto passed in front of a star, an occurrence known as an occultation, which allows observations during the time the dwarf planets were effectively back-lit.

Makemake also recently occulted a star, giving ESO boffins the chance to make similar observations that, sadly, have come up with a negative result, as reported by Nature (PDF).

Lead scientist Jose Luis Ortiz, of Spain’s Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia, has issued a statement with the following explanation of how the ESO team decided Makemake lacks an atmosphere:

"As Makemake passed in front of the star and blocked it out, the star disappeared and reappeared very abruptly, rather than fading and brightening gradually. This means that the little dwarf planet has no significant atmosphere.”

The rapid moves by the star are significant because if an atmosphere is present it blurs things out and makes observations of an object’s edge hard. The swift transition suggests there’s no instrument-blurring atmosphere in the way.

The surface of Makemake. Credit ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Artist's impression of Makemake's surface

Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Ortiz said the lack of atmosphere “shows just how much we have yet to learn about these mysterious bodies,” but adds it’s not all bad news as “Finding out about Makemake's properties for the first time is a big step forward in our study of the select club of icy dwarf planets."

Those properties, revealed by Chile’s Very Large Telescope, New Technology Telescope and TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), with the help of some other South American ‘scopes, reveal that Makemake has an albedo of .77. That’s about the same as dirty snow, the Observatory says, making the dwarf brighter than Pluto but dimmer than Eris.

It’s also close to the rough measurements of .7 for the albedo of Haumea, the third-largest dwarf planet. Haumea possesses no atmosphere, making a 50/50 split among trans-Uranic dwarf planets.

Ceres, the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system, is thought to possess an atmosphere. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Just TWO climate committee MPs contradict IPCC: The two with SCIENCE degrees
'Greenhouse effect is real, but as for the rest of it ...'
BEST BATTERY EVER: All lithium, all the time, plus a dash of carbon nano-stuff
We have found the Holy Grail (of batteries) - boffins
Asteroid's DINO KILLING SPREE just bad luck – boffins
Sauricide WASN'T inevitable, reckon scientists
Flamewars in SPAAACE: cooler fires hint at energy efficiency
Experiment aboard ISS shows we should all chill out for cleaner engines
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
NASA Mars rover FINALLY equals 1973 Soviet benchmark
Yet to surpass ancient Greek one, however
Famous 'Dish' radio telescope to be emptied in budget crisis: CSIRO
Radio astronomy suffering to protect Square Kilometre Array
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.