Jimmy Westlake: Planet potpourri
November 16, 2008
Steamboat Springs — Quietly and without much fanfare, our solar system recently gained two more named dwarf planets. They were discovered a few years ago, but it takes awhile for the official naming process to run its course.
You might recall that, in 2006, a long-standing member of the exclusive “planet club,” Pluto, lost its membership when the International Astronomical Union redefined the term “planet,” and Pluto got the ax. As a consolation prize, Pluto was given the official designation of “dwarf planet” (which still sounds like a kind of planet to me!). At the same time, Ceres, the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, received an upward promotion to “dwarf planet” status, and the largest object discovered beyond Pluto, Eris, became the third dwarf planet.
Now come two more outer solar system objects to the ranks of dwarf planetdom. Please welcome Makemake (pronounced mah-kay-mah-kay) and Haumea (pronounced hah-oo-may-ah) to the family. Like Pluto and Eris, Makemake and Haumea are cold, icy bodies out beyond Neptune that are large enough to pull themselves into a spherical shape but are guilty of not having cleared their orbits of debris and, therefore, forfeit their memberships into the planet club. The IAU in June, though, created a new club for the icy dwarf planets beyond Neptune. Pluto, Eris, Makemake and Haumea are charter members of the Plutoid club. There are about 70 more applications to the Plutoid club that are awaiting certification.
By the way, if you are wondering about the unusual new names, Makemake’s code name, given by its co-discoverer Michael Brown, was “Easter bunny.” He chose the official designation Makemake because this was the chief god from the mythology of the native inhabitants of Easter Island. Haumea is the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and childbirth. It appears that this object, in fact, gave birth to a whole string of icy bodies in the outer solar system as the result of a cataclysmic impact long ago. Haumea’s two known moons are now named for two of her many children, Hi’iaka and Namaka. Who says astronomers don’t have a sense of humor?
Meanwhile, in another solar system far, far away, the faint glimmer of an extra-solar planet has been photographed successfully for the very first time. This planet, unimaginatively named Fomalhaut b, orbits the familiar bright star Fomalhaut that graces our autumn skies. As of Friday, 326 extrasolar planets have been confirmed by indirect measurements. Fomalhaut b is the first such planet to be photographed visually by the venerable Hubble Space Telescope.
I propose that we name this newly discovered planet “Elvis.” All in favor say “aye!”