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Astronomers Find a Small World That Could Hint at a Big One

Move a few astronomical units over, Pluto, there’s a new dwarf in town. Astronomers have announced in Nature that they’ve discovered a new dwarf planet which, at its closest, passes about 7.2 billion miles from the sun. And what’s more, the apparent movement of this new planetoid hints that a much larger planet could be orbiting even farther out, one that could be 20x bigger than Earth.

The new body has been dubbed 2012 VP-113 and measures about 280-miles across. Circling our sun at a minimum of 80 astronomical units (1 au = the distance between the earth and the sun), 2012 VP-113 is well beyond the Kuiper belt, a thick ring of frozen bodies which orbits beyond Neptune (the farthest planet out) at 30 to 55 au away.

While 2012 VP-113 is officially way the hell out there, it’s still not as far out as the Oort cloud – a massive expanse of icy material stretching from 50,000 to 100,000 au away. To give you a sense of how far that is, a light year is equivalent to a mere 63,240 au. If the Oort cloud hurts your brain too much to think about, you can hold out hope that its existence gets debunked someday – the concept is still just a hypothesis.

Kuiper Belt IP

This diagram should give you an idea of how far away the Kuiper belt is, and how much farther the Oort cloud extends from there. (NASA)

It was long thought that the area between the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud was entirely featureless, but this notion changed with the 2003 discovery of the 600 mile wide dwarf planet Sedna. The presence of this relatively large body in this supposedly vacant region made astronomers wonder what else might be out there. Even for super smart scientists with super powerful telescopes, seeing small stuff that’s really far away is still super hard. To spot more planetoids like Sedna they’d have to detect faint beams of light that manage to reach these distant worlds, reflect off of them, and then bounce all the way back to us. To accomplish such a feat, astronomers enlisted what has to be the most bad-ass sounding scientific instrument in the game, the Dark Energy Camera on the NOAO 4-meter telescope in Chile. Finally they spotted the faint, dim object they’ve now dubbed 2012 VP-113.

Sedna IP

Far out, man. This diagram should give you an idea of how distant Sedna (orange) and 2012 VP-113 (red) are from us – even at their closest ranges. Working outward, the purple rings represent the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, while the green dots represent the Kuiper belt, which hold the famously demoted Pluto. (Scott S. Sheppard: Carnegie Institution for Science)

Here’s what’s getting scientists (and us) really excited. Sedna and 2012 VP-113 seem to be making their tightest approach to the sun at similar angles, and this could mean that they are being affected by the gravity of a much larger body. If this planet exists, scientists suspect this giant could be up to 20x bigger than Earth. Only time – and the discovery of more dwarf planets like these – will tell if there’s a monster lurking beyond the Kuiper belt.

What do you think, Nerdist science readers?  Is there a distant mega ice planet out there affecting the orbits of Sedna and 2012 VP-2013? And more importantly, could it be Hoth!?

HT: Los Angeles Times

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  1. Eric says:

    Hmmm, the timing of this article (April Fool’s) is questionable….

  2. Dbetz007 says:

    Well there have been theories that our system is technically a binary star system and that second object could potentially be a brown dwarf. If it is such an object it could be extremely hard to see as it does not produce light. There are other possibilities as well and there may be no monster planet out there perhaps these planets were remnants from some star that went supernova and our sun managed to catch them at just the right angle so they began to orbit. There are so many different possibilities one cannot fully fathom them for now we can only theorize and speculate until we prove or disprove one or more of these theories.

  3. Dan says:

    Justin: Don’t think Neli42 got the joke. I thought it was pretty good, myself.

  4. Neli42 says:

    Justin, it is indeed named after “some guy.” That guy is astronomer Gerard Kuiper.

  5. Craig says:

    The Kuiper belt /ˈkaɪpər/, sometimes called theEdgeworth–Kuiper belt (after the astronomersKenneth Edgeworth and Gerard Kuiper), is a region of…

  6. Kenneth says:

    Well, with such bodies out there we could technically use those planets as fueling stations in an attempt to hop our way into other star systems with the nearest one being a few dozen lightyears away

  7. This article hints at further confirmation for a planet described by the ancient Sumerian culture called Nibiru. Which was described to be 4-8 times the size of earth. I think their estimates of 20x times bigger than earth will change based on the core destiny of the planet.

    We’re the ancient Sumerians right?

    Jason Martell

  8. Redgrifn says:

    It’s just a mass relay that’s covered in ice. We just have to defrost to go hang out with some Turians and Asari.

  9. Justin says:

    I like that the objects of the Kuiper Belt actually form the word Kuiper Belt. I thought it was named after some guy.

  10. Andrew says:

    I’ve seen several of those sciencey The Universe type shows where they discussed the theoretical possibility of a giant planet way out there and I always scoffed at the idea. It will really suck if the find it and I am forced to retract my scoff.

  11. Juice says:

    Yes. It is most definitely Yuggoth.

  12. Ramone says:

    “If the Oort cloud hurts your brain too much to think about, you can hold out hope that its existence gets debunked someday – the concept is still just a hypothesis.” Just snarky or are you really trolling? Do we really need more science haters? The rest of the article was actually pretty exciting without that tacky jibe.

  13. Taurin says:

    If I recall correctly, Hoth is in a galaxy far, far away. I’m betting it’s the benighted Yuggoth of Lovecraftian lore, from whence come the brain snatching Mi-Go.