2014 UZ224 is a dwarf planet just discovered

2014 UZ224 orbit (Image JPL Horizons / Sky and Telescope)
2014 UZ224 orbit (Image JPL Horizons / Sky and Telescope)

David Gerdes, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Michigan, and a number of colleagues associated with the DES (Dark Energy Survey) survey have discovered a new dwarf planet that currently has a distance of about 14 billion kilometers (about 8.5 billion miles) from the Sun. Called for now just 2014 UZ224, it’s among the most distant celestial bodies discovered in the solar system after the dwarf planet Eris and the possible dwarf planet known as V774104 whose discovery was announced in December 2015.

The DES Survey is an international collaboration which aims to map hundreds of millions of galaxies, detect thousands of supernovae and find patterns of cosmic structures that reveal the nature of dark energy. The Dark Energy Camera (DECam), a camera mounted on the Victor M. Blanco telescope of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory went into service also thanks to Professor David Gerdes’ work.

In 2014, Professor David Gerdes asked his students to look for objects at the boundaries of the solar system using photographs taken by the DECam knowing that the same technology used in the DES survey may be useful for the discovery of objects in the Kuiper belt, the area of the solar system beyond Neptune where there are many icy celestial bodies. The exam of photographs taken between 2013 and 2016 uncovered several trans-Neptunian objects including the one called 2014 UZ224.

Obtaining accurate information about the celestial bodies so far from the Sun is really hard and those about 2014 UZ224 are still fragmentary. Its orbit seems very eccentric, with a year that lasts 1,136 Earth years with a minimum distance from the Sun about 5.7 billion kilometers (about 3.54 billion miles) and a maximum of about 27 billion kilometers (almost 16.8 billion miles). This means that in the future it could become the dwarf planet farthest from the Sun, of course if no other ones even farther away will be discovered.

Right now there are too little data to accurately estimate the size of 2014 UZ224. From the available observations it can be estimated to have a diameter between 350 and 1,200 kilometers (from 217 to 745 miles). The brightness of an object in visible light depends on its size and how much light it reflects so there are too many unknowns.

Help comes from the fact that the heat emitted by an object is proportional to its size and Professor David Gerdes’ team obtained an image of 2014 UZ224 taken with the ALMA radio telescope. Combining all the data together they’ll be able to obtain more precise information on this object.

When there are sufficient data on 2014 UZ224, it will be possible to tell if it falls within the definition of dwarf planet. According to Professor David Gerdes the term is applicable but Pluto’s story teaches that there can be many disputes. In any case, studying these objects so far away allows us to obtain new information on an area of the solar system, still little known, which there could even be another planet.

2014 UZ224 indicated by the arrow (Photo David Gerdes/DES/University of Michigan)
2014 UZ224 indicated by the arrow (Photo David Gerdes/DES/University of Michigan)

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