Sep 11

Dwarf Planet mysteries beckon to New Horizons

Source: NASA Science News

Artist's concept of New Horizons arriving to a minor planet.
Image credit: NASA.

Dwarf planet Pluto is a world of mystery waiting to be visited for the first time. NASA's New Horizons probe is racing across the solar system for a close encounter that could dramatically alter what researchers "know" about Pluto and other small worlds.(read more)

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Jul 11

Hubble discovers another moon around Pluto

Source: NASA News

Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI institute)

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a fourth moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The tiny, new satellite, temporarily designated P4, was uncovered in a Hubble survey searching for rings around the dwarf planet.

The new moon is the smallest discovered around Pluto. It has an estimated diameter of 8 to 21 miles (13 to 34 km).  By comparison, Charon, Pluto's largest moon, is 648 miles (1,043 km) across, and the other moons, Nix and Hydra, are in the range of 20 to 70 miles in diameter (32 to 113 km). (read more)

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Jul 11

When minor planets Ceres and Vesta rock the Earth into chaos

Astronomy and Astrophysics is publishing a new study of the orbital evolution of minor planets Ceres and Vesta, a few days before the flyby of Vesta by the Dawn spacecraft. A team of astronomers found that close encounters among these bodies lead to strong chaotic behavior of their orbits, as well as of the Earth's eccentricity. This means, in particular, that the Earth's past orbit cannot be reconstructed beyond 60 million years.

Astronomy and Astrophysics is publishing numerical simulations of the long-term evolution of the orbits of minor planets Ceres and Vesta, which are the largest bodies in the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres is 6000 times less massive than the Earth and almost 80 times less massive than our Moon. Vesta is almost four times less massive than Ceres.

These two minor bodies, long thought to peacefully orbit in the asteroid belt, are found to affect their large neighbors and, in particular, the Earth in a way that had not been anticipated. This is showed in the new astronomical computations released by Jacques Laskar from Paris Observatory and his colleagues.

Although small, Ceres and Vesta gravitationally interact together and with the other planets of the Solar System. Because of these interactions, they are continuously pulled or pushed slightly out of their initial orbit. Calculations show that, after some time, these effects do not average out. Consequently, the bodies leave their initial orbits and, more importantly, their orbits are chaotic, meaning that we cannot predict their positions.

The two bodies also have a significant probability of impacting each other, estimated at 0.2% per billion year. Last but not least, Ceres and Vesta gravitationally interact with the Earth, whose orbit also becomes unpredictable after only 60 million years.

This means that the Earth's eccentricity, which affects the large climatic variations on its surface, cannot be traced back more than 60 million years ago. This is indeed bad news for Paleoclimate studies.

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