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article imagePluto's Doppelganger? Latest interplanetary research

By Tim Sandle     Nov 21, 2011 in Science
Astronomers have made a detailed analysis of the dwarf planet Eris, located at the edge of our solar system. The findings indicate that Eris has very similar dimensions and physical features to Pluto. The news represents a major astronomical discovery.
Eris (known formally as 136199 Eris) is a large dwarf planet located on the edge of the solar system. It is a cold, dark and distant object. Astronomers have used recent observations to show that Eris is so similar in size, mass and composition that it could well be a doppelgänger for Pluto.
The data relating to the discovery was collected in November 2010 but the outcome of the observations and measurements have only recently been released. The astronomers were representatives of French, Belgian, Spanish and Brazilian universities, according to the European Southern Observatory. One of the most remarkable things about the observations is that they were made using what is, by current standards, a relatively small telescope.
Pluto was for a long time regarded as the ninth planet in the solar system, since it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. This was until Pluto was controversially declassified and re-categorized as a dwarf planet called "134340 Pluto" in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union. This decision left only eight planets in the solar system.
The dwarf planet Eris was discovered in 2005 by a team based at the Palomar Observatory in California. The dwarf planet was named after the Greek goddess of chaos.
Due to its distance from the Sun astronomers knew very little about the planet, other than hypothecating that it was an "ice planet" (like Pluto, a large rock covered with a layer of ice).
In November 2010, a fortunate and rare event, known as a stellar occultation, where Eris passed in front of a star and blocked the light of the more distant object, allowed the astronomical team based in Chile to study Eris in detail.
Many astronomers around the world attempted to examine the occulation phenomena.However, only three telescopes, each located in Chile, managed to capture the event. These included the robotic TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) telescope at the European Organisation for Astronomical Research's La Silla Observatory, and the two telescopes sited at an Pedro de Atacama (the The Caisey Harlingten and ASH2 telescopes).
Although Eris is located further from the Sun it is similar in size to Pluto diameter and almost perfectly spherical. The diameter of Eris is 1,445 miles, which is very similar to Pluto’s, which is between 1,429 and 1,491 miles. This means that Eris is almost the perfect twin of Pluto.
The interesting thing about the findings are not only that this expands our knowledge of the solar system and the planetary bodies which are close to Earth, it also shows that some older style science based on optical telescopes and patience in waiting for certain stellar events, can still reveal phenomena of great importance.
Further details are starting to emerge about Eris in terms of its mass and composition (early estimates indicate that it has a layer of ice 100 kilometers thick).
Full details of the discovery are outlined in a paper by Sicardy et al published in the journal Nature (published on 27th October 2011).
More about Astronomy, Planets, Pluto, solar systen, Telescope
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