for National Geographic News
Astronomers announced Monday the discovery of the most distant object ever found orbiting the sun: a shiny, red body of rock and ice about three-quarters the size of Pluto. The plantoid is so far out that it takes 10,000 years to circle the sun.
"There is absolutely nothing else like it known in the solar system," said Mike Brown. Brown is a planetary astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and leader of the research team.
Brown and his colleagues discovered the body on November 14, 2003, using the Samuel Oschin Telescope at Caltech's Palomar Observatory near San Diego. Within days of the planetoid's discovery, telescopes in Chile, Spain, Arizona, and Hawaii observed the object.
The object is officially known as 2003VB12, so designated for the date of its discovery. Brown and his colleagues are proposing to name it Sedna, in honor of the Inuit goddess who is said to have created all creatures of the sea.
"Sedna lives at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, a very cold location, and we thought it appropriate for an object that's this cold and this far away to be named after an Inuit creation goddess," said Brown.
The researchers say temperatures on Sedna never warm above minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 240 degrees Celsius), making it the coldest known body in the solar system.
Sedna is usually much colder. Its highly elliptical orbit takes it as far as about 84 billion miles (130 billion kilometers) from the sun, which is 900 times Earth's distance from the sun. Currently Sedna is ten times closer to the sun than it would be at its farthest orbit. The body's orbit takes 10,500 years to complete.
The body is believed to be composed mostly of rock and ice and has an unusual shiny red color to it. Astronomers have also collected indirect evidence that it has a moon. Future observations with the Hubble Space Telescope should provide a definitive answer.
Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said Sedna's discovery is "wonderful, not surprising but wonderful." Like Brown, Stern believes hundreds, maybe thousands, of objects like Sedna will eventually be discovered as astronomers probe the outer reaches of the solar system.
Brown and his colleagues say that Sedna is unlike anything else ever discovered. It lies in a region of the solar system that is beyond the Kuiper Belt, a group of icy remnants orbitting beyond Neptune and dating back to the planet-formation era of the solar system.
In recent years astronomers have discovered several big objects orbiting in the Kuiper Belt, including Quaoar in 2002, Ixion in 2001, and Varuna in 2000. Many astronomers also believe Pluto, the ninth planet, is a Kuiper Belt object.
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