2007 OR10 deserves a better name

Image: Dwarf planets compared
An illustration lines up the solar system’s four largest dwarf planets, with 2007 OR10 in the middle of the pack. (Credit: Andras Pal / Konkoly Observatory, Ivan Eder / Hungarian Astronomical Association, NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Observations made by NASA’s Kepler space telescope suggest that the icy world known as 2007 OR10 is bigger than astronomers thought –and that’s adding to the pressure to give the probable dwarf planet an official name, nine years after its discovery.

Some of the suggestions pick up on the recent controversy over a British ship-naming contest in which Boaty McBoatface emerged as the overwhelming favorite. So how about Dwarfplanety McDwarfplanetface, or Plutoid McPlutoface?

The cause of all this mirth is a research paper in the Astronomical Journal that provides a new size estimate for 2007 OR10, which lies far out in the Kuiper Belt, the broad ring of icy material just beyond Neptune. The object traces an eccentric orbit that takes 547.51 Earth years to complete, and ranges as far out as 66.9 times Earth’s distance from the sun (6.2 billion miles).

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Software helps scientists double planet count

Image: Planet diversity
A graphic shows the diversity of planets. (Credit: NASA)

The scientists behind NASA’s Kepler mission are using statistics to put their campaign to identify new planets into overdrive: New software that automates the process has verified 1,284 candidates as genuine planets rather than celestial “impostors,” more than doubling its database of confirmed worlds.

“This is the most exoplanets that have ever been announced at one time,” Princeton University researcher Timothy Morton said today during a teleconference revealing the latest counts.

Kepler’s official tally of potentially habitable planets close to Earth’s size took a jump as well, from 12 to 21.

NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan hailed the rapid progress. “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth,” she said in a statement.

The dramatic acceleration in the planet hunt is due to a statistical method pioneered by Morton and his colleagues, and described in a paper published in theAstrophysical Journal.

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Hubble spots dwarf planet Makemake’s moon

Image: Makemake and MK 2
An artist’s conception shows the distant dwarf planet Makemake with its dark moon, MK 2, lurking to the right. (Credit: NASA / ESA / A. Parker / SwRI)

Chalk up another moon for the dwarf planets: Astronomers have sifted through imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope to find a tiny satellite circling Makemake.

Makemake (pronounced Mah-kay-mah-kay, like the Rapa Nui deity after which it’s named) is one of the five dwarf planets recognized by the International Astronomical Union, along with Pluto, Eris, Haumea and Ceres. It’s more than 50 times farther away from the sun than Earth is, which translates to a distance of 4.8 billion miles.

With a diameter of 870 miles, Makemake is the third-largest known solar system object beyond the orbit of Neptune, in a wide ring of icy material called the Kuiper Belt. (Planet Nine, a.k.a. Planet X, would change the order if it exists, but it hasn’t yet been found.)

Like Eris, the dwarf planet that stirred up all the fuss over Pluto’s planetary status, Makemake was discovered in 2005 by a team led by Caltech astronomer Mike Brown. Like Pluto, Makemake is thought to be covered in frozen methane.

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The case for Planet Nine (a.k.a. Planet X)

Image: Planet Nine
An artist’s conception shows a “super-Earth” far from the sun. (Credit: R. Hurt / IPAC / Caltech)

For decades, astronomers have gone back and forth over whether a “Planet X” exists on the edge of our solar system – and now two researchers have laid out new evidence supporting the claim, including a rough idea of where it could be found.

One of the most notable things about the claim has to do with one of the people who’s making it: Mike Brown, the Caltech astronomer who says he “killed” Pluto when it was the ninth planet.

“This would be a real ninth planet,” Brown said in a news release. “There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be the third.”

Brown’s “two true planets” refer to Uranus and Neptune, not Pluto. To emphasize the point, Brown and his collaborator at Caltech, Konstantin Batygin, have nicknamed the object “Planet Nine.” (Other nicknames are said to include George, Planet of the Apes, Jehoshaphat and Phattie.)

There’s one big gap in the argument: No such object has yet been detected.

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Stamps celebrate Pluto, planets and ‘Star Trek’

Image: Pluto stamps
The U.S. Postal Service’s souvenir sheet of four stamps contains two new stamps appearing twice. The first stamp shows an artist’s rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft and the second shows the spacecraft’s enhanced color image of Pluto taken near closest approach. (Credit: Antonio Alcala / USPS)

For the first time since 1991, Pluto and the solar system’s eight bigger planets are getting their own postage stamps – thanks to a U.S. Postal Service cosmopalooza that also spotlights Earth’s moon and “Star Trek.”

The Pluto stamp pays tribute to NASA’s New Horizons mission, and updates 1991’s speculative view of the dwarf planet. Back then, the legend on the 29-cent stamp read “Pluto – Not Yet Explored.” This time, the four-stamp sheet carries the label “Pluto – Explored!”

The stamps follow through on a petition that was filed by New Horizons’ fans more than three years ago – long before the piano-sized probe flew past Pluto on July 14.

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How the ‘Star Wars’ saga scores on science

Image: Lightsaber
Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) wields a lightsaber with three blazing blades in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Just be careful where you point that thing, Kylo! (Credit: Lucasfilm / Disney)

The “Star Wars” saga isn’t exactly a science textbook, but there’s one fact about the universe that the movies got dazzlingly right: There are more planets out there than you can shake a lightsaber at.

Back in 1977, the movie now known as “Star Wars: A New Hope” put an assortment of alien worlds on display. There was Tatooine, a desert planet with two suns. Alderaan was Princess Leia’s home planet and the epicenter for a “disturbance in the Force.” Rebels took refuge on a moon in orbit around the gas giant Yavin.

In those days, the idea that there could be so many livable worlds seemed like pure science fiction. “For the most part, scientists thought planets were very rare in the universe,” said Jeanne Cavelos, an astrophysicist-turned-author who literally wrote the book on “The Science of Star Wars.”

Now we know better.

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IAU reveals its first list of exoplanet names

Image: Hot Jupiter planet
An artist’s conception shows a “hot Jupiter” around an alien star. One of the first hot Jupiters to be detected, 55 Cancri b, has been given the name Galileo. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

After a crowdsourcing campaign that lasted more than a year, the International Astronomical Union has issued its first-ever list of approved names for extrasolar planets – a lineup of 31 worlds, including some famous discoveries.

Among the new names to get to know are Aegir, also known as Epsilon Eridani b, one of the closest known exoplanets at a distance of 10 light-years; Dagon, a.k.a. Fomalhaut b, the first exoplanet to be detected directly in visible wavelengths; and Dimidium, a.k.a. 51 Pegasi b, the first exoplanet to be discovered around a sunlike star. Another crowd-pleaser is 55 Cancri b, a hot Jupiter-type planet that’s been named Galileo in honor of the famous 17th-century astronomer.

The spookiest name on the list may well be Poltergeist, which is more memorable than the planet’s scientific name, PSR 1257+12 c. It’s one of the first planets detected beyond the solar system, circling a pulsar in the constellation Virgo.

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Universe Today

Kepler mission finds Earth’s older ‘cousin’

This artist’s concept depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of star that is similar to our sun. (NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech Illustration / T. Pyle)

Scientists say NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered Earth’s “older, bigger first cousin” –  a planet that’s about 60 percent bigger than our own, circling a sunlike star in an orbit that could sustain liquid water and perhaps life.

“Today, Earth is a little bit less lonely, because there’s a new kid on the block,” Kepler data analysis lead Jon Jenkins, a computer scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said during a NASA teleconference about the find.

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