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Absence of Atmosphere on Dwarf Planet ‘Makemake’

Nov 22, 2012 06:49 AM EST
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New horizons flyover of Pluto

New observations of the dwarf planet Makemake have revealed that it has no signs of atmosphere.

A team of astronomers used three telescopes at ESO's observatories in Chile to examine Makemake for the first time. It is one of the five dwarf planets in our solar system that includes Ceres, Haumea, Eris and former planet Pluto.

It was previously thought that the icy Makemake has an atmosphere similar to that of Pluto. When astronomers observed the planet as it glided in front of a distant star Nomad 1181-0235723 and blocked its light for one minute last April, they noticed that the dwarf planet is not surrounded by an atmosphere, just like Eris.

Astronomers also measured the size and density of Makemake for the first time. They found that the planet is about two-thirds the size of Pluto and has a density of 0.06 pounds per cubic inch (1.7 grams per cubic centimeter).

They also noticed that Makemake orbits the sun at a distance of about 4.8 billion miles between Pluto and Eris. The dwarf planet reflected more light from the sun than Pluto. Makemake reflected 77 percent of light from the sun, whereas Pluto reflects only 52 percent of light from the sun, a report in Agence France-Presse said.

"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," José Luis Ortiz, of the Andalucian Institute of Astrophysics in Spain and lead author of the study, said in a release from European Southern Observatory.

"It was thought that Makemake had a good chance of having developed an atmosphere - that it has no sign of one at all shows just how much we have yet to learn about these mysterious bodies. 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," he said.

The findings of the study are published in the journal Nature

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