Student software finds new Minor Planet found way out beyond Pluto

'2014 UZ224' has diameter of about 530km and takes 1,100 years to go around the Sun

Deep space real estate speculators, meet your next target: the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center has posted news of 2014 UZ224, a newly-verified minor planet.

We don't know a lot about 2014 UZ224, which looks to have a diameter of about 530km. Humanity spotted the object about 91.6AU from Sol – or 13.7bn km - but it looks to have an aphelion of almost double that and an elliptical orbit that sees its perihelion of about 38AU. That's about 9AU beyond Pluto. Or in other words a really, really long way away.

2014 UZ224 appears to be smaller than the International Astronomical Union's definition of a “Dwarf Planet”, which kicks in at a diameter of 800km. The rock may therefore struggle to shed the minor planet classification, which means it will have to make do with an unlovely number instead of a jaunty name.

At least the object has a nice back story: as the Dark Energy Survey has explained to NPR.org, the discovery was made after undergraduates were tasked with searching for new objects as part of a summer project. Despite being unable to sample the same patch of sky night after night, cunning software spotted something that, as the Minor Planet Centre records at the link above, was later able to be verified by other observers.

It's thought there may be hundreds of 2014-UZ224-sized objects in the farther regions of the solar system. Spotting them is hard work because their albedos are low, orbits odd and they're all a long way off! But with the New Horizons probe showing us Pluto was rather more interesting than expected and the outer reaches of the solar system still very poorly-understood, new discoveries remain welcome. ®


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