While we were focused on all the news that happened here on Earth this week, we neglected to keep up with everything that was happening in (or about) space. A tremendous oversight that we will now correct with this recap of the reports from outer space
Dwarf planet "Biden"
Scientists have discovered a far-out object circling the Sun, which they believe to be a dwarf planet and the most distant member of the observable solar system.
The object, called 2012 VP113 (VP or Biden for short) contributes to the theory that "the outer reaches of our solar system are not an empty wasteland as once was thought," according to Chadwick Trujillo, one of the researchers who helped make the discovery. NASA explains further:
There appears to be an edge to the solar system where only one object somewhat smaller than Pluto, Sedna, was previously known to inhabit for its entire orbit. But the newly found 2012 VP113 has an orbit that stays even beyond Sedna, making it the furthest known in the solar system.
If VP is identified as a brown dwarf, it will join the ranks of Sedna, which was discovered in 2003, and Pluto, which was ousted from the list of planets, in 2006. Its distance from Earth means it is located, along with Sedna, in inner part of the hypothesized Oort cloud; a spherical cloud made up of small, icy "planetesimals" that is located roughly one light-year away from the sun.
Because the inner Oort cloud is so far away, it offers scientists the opportunity to study objects removed from the gravitational pull of stars or other planets. According to the Los Angeles Times, this makes them 'like a dynamic 'fossil' of interplanetary movement in the early solar system."
The LA Times adds, however, that it's not that easy to study these objects:
Unlike the distant stars in the night sky, rocks don’t make their own light. So the astronomers have to look for faint, moving glints of reflected sunlight off these distant bodies. That means the sun’s rays have to travel all the way out to this dark, cold interplanetary fringe and then come all the way back to us. The researchers used the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) on the NOAO 4-meter telescope in Chile and scanned the sky looking for such dim, slow-moving objects. After months of analysis, the scientists picked up on an intriguing signal in the sky.
Scott Sheppard, who worked with Trujillo on the project, explained that 2012 VP113 “was the slowest moving thing I’d seen in the discovery process, so immediately I knew it was interesting." The further away an object is, the slower it moves, so the object's pace tipped Sheppard off.
According to Nature, VP measures about 280 miles across, and is most likely made of ice. Scientists have some ideas on how objects like VP were formed. Nature explains:
One leading hypothesis proposes that in the Solar System’s infancy, a nearby star gravitationally perturbed the coalescing system and dragged some fragments out towards the edge. Another possibility is that a massive rogue planet passed through at some point, kicking objects from the Kuiper belt outwards into the inner Oort cloud.
The discovery is especially exciting because it could mean the existence of other, larger planetoids in the inner Oort cloud. Shepard explains, "Some of these inner Oort cloud objects could rival the size of Mars or even Earth. This is because many of the inner Oort cloud objects are so distant that even very large ones would be too faint to detect with current technology."
NASA Spacesuit AMA
NASA is upgrading its space-suit look, and has invited the public to vote on which new style it will adopt. According to NASA:
The cover layer of a prototype suit is important as it serves to protect the suit against abrasion and snags during the rigors of testing... The designs were created with the intent to protect the suit and to highlight certain mobility features to aid suit testing. To take it a step further, we are leaving it up you, the public, to choose which of three candidates will be built.
Voters will have until April 15 to select on of three possible Z-2 designs. First, is the "biomimicry" suit, which "mirror[s] the bioluminescent qualities of aquatic creatures found at incredible depths and the scaly skin of fish and reptiles found across the globe."
Next, is the "technology" model, which "pays homage to spacesuit achievements of the past while incorporating subtle elements of the future."
Finally, the "trend in society," which is supposed to be "reflective of what every day clothes may look like in the not too distant future."
Continuing this trend of reaching out to the public, NASA engineers held a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" on Thursday, where they gamely fielded some of Redditors most pressing questions, like "What about puking?" in the suit; "how accurate are spacesuits in modern science fiction movies?" and "how do you think spacesuits will look by the end of the century?"
The answers, respectively, were "We're reminded almost every single time we get in the suit, not to puke in it. Not only would it be horrible to clean up, but also in microgravity, you can potentially inhale it and be killed by your own emesis," "Space suits from most futuristic space movies are form fitting and allow you got get in your suit, open the hatch, and go EVA. Not realistic for the forseeable future, and "Like Ironman..."
First ringed asteroid
In a paper published in Nature this week, scientists revealed they've discovered an asteroid with Saturn-like rings, the first of its kind. Lead researcher Felpi Braga-Ribas told CNN that he and his team didn't expect the outcome, saying "we weren't looking for a ring and didn't think small bodies like Chariklo had them at all."
Chariklo which joins Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus as the only objects in the solar system to have their own ring system, is a relatively small asteroid. It measures 150 miles across and is identified as a centaur. Centaurs, which contain both asteroid and comet characteristics, have unpredictable orbits which cross into those of giant planets. CNN offers more details:
Telescopes at seven different locations, including the European Southern Observatory's La Silla site in Chile, saw a star seem to disappear for a few seconds on June 3, 2013. This happened because the star's light was obscured by Chariklo. The star's brightness also diminished a few seconds before and after that main blocking of light. Astronomers discovered that rings were responsible, and calculated their size, shape and orientation.
Chariklo's two rings, nicknamed Oiapoque and Chui, respectively, measure 4.3 and 1.9 miles across, with a 5.6-mile gap in between. Slate's Phil Plait explains how the rings could have formed:
The most likely cause is from a collision; some smaller body may have slammed into Chariklo, creating a huge cloud of ice and dust that encircled the centaur. Due to complicated physics (including the fact that from the occultation observations it looks like Chariklo itself may not be spherical, but oblate, like a beach ball someone sat on) the particles could settle into a disk, orbiting the main body above its equator.
Back to the ISS
In other news, those who have been following will be pleased to know that the three astronauts who headed to the ISS mission this week have arrived safely.