A team of scientists led by Chadwick Trujillo, of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, and Scott Sheppard, of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, have found a new dwarf planet beyond Pluto and another dwarf planet named Sedna, which was found over a decade ago. Their findings were published today in the science journal Nature.
In an interview with NPR, Scott Sheppard described the dwarf planet. "The object has a pinkish hue to it, so it would look a little pink, maybe a little reddish," he said. The object, 2012 VP113, has yet to be given a formal name, but Sheppard tells NPR, "Affectionately, we call it Biden, just because of the VP."
The discovery is helping scientists with a working hypothesis of Oort clouds, or a spherical cloud of icy objects beyond Pluto, in further reaches of our solar system. "While the very existence of the inner Oort Cloud is only a working hypothesis," NASA's Kelly Fast said in a release, "this finding could help answer how it may have formed.” In a NASA release, Chadwick Trujillo, one of the lead astronomers, put it this way:
“The discovery of 2012 VP113 shows us that the outer reaches of our solar system are not an empty wasteland as once was thought. Instead, this is just the tip of the iceberg telling us that there are many inner Oort Cloud bodies awaiting discovery. It also illustrates how little we know about the most distant parts of our solar system and how much there is left to explore.”
To discover "Biden," Sheppard and Trujillo used the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s telescope (13 feet) in Chile. Details of its surface and orbit were determined using the Magellan telescope (21 feet) at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, also in Chile.
The dwarf planet is only about 280 miles across, but Sheppard thinks there might be thousands more out there. According to NPR:
"Biden, Sedna and some other bodies at the edge of the Kuiper belt have a strange similarity in their orbits — one that suggests they're all being influenced by the presence of something big, perhaps an unseen planet that could be up to 10 times the size of Earth."
Dwarf planet 2012 VP113's orbit path is 80 times the difference between the distance from the Earth to the sun, or 80 astronomical units or AU, making it the farthest object we've discovered in the solar system.