Meet Makemake — the New Pluto

A little world with an unusual name has some other strange features too

  • Share
  • Read Later
image: an artist's rendering of Makemake
Goddard Space Flight Center / NASA

An artist's rendering of Makemake

The furor surrounding Pluto’s demotion from planet to dwarf planet back in 2006 still hasn’t gone away, but all the noise — much of it coming from disgruntled schoolchildren — has obscured the genuinely exciting science underlying that decision. Astronomers began to understand during the 1990s and 2000s that Pluto was just the most visible member of the Kuiper Belt, a vast ring of icy, rocky debris circling the solar system that was left from the time the sun and everything that orbits it formed. Little, planet-like bodies called Trans-Neptunian Objects (or TNOs) with names like Quaoar, Sedna and Haumea joined the sun’s family over that time, and when a world named Eris was found to be more or less the same size as Pluto, it became clear that scientists would have to either cut the number of planets off at eight or eventually start counting up into the dozens, at least.

(MORE: Get Pluto Out of Here!)

Much more important, though, is the fact that planetary scientists can study some of these tiny bodies despite their multibillion-mile distance from Earth. The latest to come under scrutiny: Makemake (named after the creator god of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island), which lies about 4.6 billion miles (7.4 billion km) from Earth. Writing in Nature, Jose Ortiz of Spain’s Andalusian Institute of Astrophysics, along with a long list of colleagues, reports that unlike Pluto, Makemake has no global atmosphere, but it may have atmospheric patches that hover over parts of its surface. “It is,” says Ortiz, “at least a theoretical possibility.”

Actually, he’s being partly humble. Makemake may or may not have patches of atmosphere, but Ortiz and his team know that it doesn’t have a complete one because they were able to watch as the world passed directly in front of a background star named NOMAD 1181-0235723. If the atmosphere had been there, the star would have faded out. Instead, it winked out abruptly — and winked back in when Makemake emerged from the other side about a minute later.

(PhotosWindow on Infinity: Pictures from Space)

This sounds pretty simple, but predicting that Makemake would pass in front of this particular unnamed star, in what’s known as an occultation, wasn’t. From Earth, Makemake appears to be about the size of a quarter sitting 30 miles (48 km) away, and neither the TNO’s orbit nor the star’s position was known with great accuracy. When the astronomers found what seemed to be a good candidate star more or less in Makemake’s path, they calculated whether an occultation was likely, then recalculated over and over as the TNO inched toward the star. In some cases, the encounter never did happen, but on April 23, 2011, the scientists hit pay dirt.

The abrupt off-on of starlight told them part of what they needed to know about Makemake’s atmosphere: it’s not complete. Evidence of its possible patchiness was gathered through remote observations by the space-based Herschel and Spitzer infrared telescopes. They showed that the world has spots of brighter and darker terrain, and because they reflect less light, the dark regions are significantly warmer — warm enough, says Ortiz, that methane ice on the surface would be heated to a gaseous state, forming patches of atmosphere.

(MORE: Why Pluto Now Has Five Moons but Is Still Not a Planet)

In fact, Ortiz says, there might even be some direct evidence for such patches. The occultation was spotted by seven telescopes that viewed the passage from slightly different angles. In some of the telescopes, there was a hint that the starlight didn’t wink out quite as abruptly as in the others, suggesting that a patch of atmosphere just happened to be lined up with the star. But, adds Ortiz, “we cannot completely rule out an instrumental problem.”

Besides confirming that Makemake has (mostly) no atmosphere, the timing of the passage revealed that the tiny world is a slightly squashed sphere about 888 miles (1,430 km) across in one direction and 933 miles (1,502 km) in the other — about half as large as Pluto.

More occultations would nail these numbers down even more precisely, and might help settle the patchy-atmosphere question as well. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any new such sightings in Makemake’s future — although, says Ortiz, “we don’t make predictions more than a year in advance because of the orbital uncertainties in TNOs.”

Sedna, on the other hand, which lies about 10 times further away than Makemake, “looks particularly promising for a stellar occultation,” Ortiz says. Time and date still to be announced.

MORE: NASA’s Cosmic Children: Taking Stock of a Growing Interplanetary Fleet

23 comments
zenith_sage
zenith_sage

There is a grammatical error in this article. You used the contraction don't instead of doesn't. It should be: Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any new such sightings in Makemake’s future — although, says Ortiz, “we don’t make predictions more than a year in advance because of the orbital uncertainties in TNOs.” Fixed.

sammydog99
sammydog99

Dang astronomy politics...   I would consider these criteria. Mean distance from the sun: 40au or less, within 18° of the ecliptic...  There now it's a planet. The objects are not.

astrostevo
astrostevo

I think the IAU got their definition of planet badly wrong - Pluto remains a world as far as I'm concerned. Makemake is an interesting world and planet in its own right too. My definition would be that a planet is round (thus not an asteroid), never shone by nuclear fusion (thus not a star) and not directly orbiting another planet thus not a moon. Pluto and Makemake both fit that bill. The IAU definition is flawed because logically if Earth or even Jupiter orbited in the "wrong" place eg. beyond where Pluto does they'd stop being planets which is an absurdity. If Pluto orbited further in then it wouldn't be in a zone of similar icy bodies but rather in a the zone of rocky ones like Earth or gassy ones like Jupiter and it'd count as a planet again. 

markking
markking

Clyde Tombaugh and Percival Lowell could be doing handsprings,but maybe not.

1nd3p3nd3nt
1nd3p3nd3nt

correct me if i'm wrong, but i thought the reason why pluto got demoted had to do with its orbit around the sun, and how it was on a different plane than the rest of the 'planets?'

astrostevo
astrostevo

@1nd3p3nd3nt Not quite although those were factors that made Pluto an oddball compared to the earlier known planets. There's a whole lot of technical rationalising but Pluto was basically (& wrongly IMHON)) demoted for  sharing its region of space with similar bodies - like Makemake, Eris (formerly known as "Xena") Haumea and Sedna. 

Funnily enough having similar sized bodies in the rocky inner part like Venus, Mars and Mercury and similar sized gassy bodies in the middle part of our solar system like Saturn Ouranos and Neptune hasn't disqualified Earth or Jupiter from being planets so, go figure!

IsaiahSirois
IsaiahSirois

@1nd3p3nd3nt No, it is just in a belt of large asteroids called the Kuiper belt.

IsaiahSirois
IsaiahSirois

@1nd3p3nd3nt Although "large asteroids" is the improper term, they are TNOs

astrostevo
astrostevo

@IsaiahSirois @1nd3p3nd3nt TNos = Trans-Neptunian Objects aka a range of other acronymns occassionally used like KBo or Kuiper Belt Object. 

There are different types of object included in that region of space varying from essentially large and small cometary nuclei to  small ice dwarf type worlds such as Pluto, Eris and Makemake. Actually, to be really technical, the term should be Edgeworth-Kuiper belt because Kenneth Edgeworth  actually postulated the idea before Gerard Kuiper did and neither individual actually discovered it merely speculated that it might be out there neither all that accurately. (See  John Davies' fascinating book 'Beyond Pluto' & David Jewett's Kuiper belt website.) Perhaps just the cometary belt would be best?

widtap
widtap

@StevenNewman I too want to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and all that is knowable is pretty much known. The models of the universe and how it works that we have in our heads and were taught, although they have changed dramatically in the past two centuries, are now pretty much correct. Or at least that is what I would like to believe. 

Of course, it is possible that the models of everything we have today is just our best working model for now, and as we gain the knowledge and tools to sail into new seas we may very well find that the Earth is not flat, that there be no monsters there, and our understanding of cosmology and physics may fundamentally change yet again, causing us to have to reclassify everything out of their comfortable niches. 

But I trust such doubts, that some would call humility, are just passing fantasies. After all, the joy is not in the journey, but at having safely arrived at our destination, yes? Certainly the world is firm beneath my feet, and yours too! :-)

RonaldMccord
RonaldMccord

Interesting. What I care about is this: I am a type 1 diabetic. My feet were going to be amputated. until I found a simple way to stop that from happening. if you are a diabetic you need to read saveyourfeetDOTwordpressDOTcom

MarkPitcavage
MarkPitcavage

So, basically, Makemake is nothing like Pluto, but it is somehow the new Pluto?

SvensKenR
SvensKenR

If Makemake is mltiple billions of miles from Earth, do astronomers really expect me to believe that any difference in position among telescopes in Earth's orbit is going to make a significant difference in what angle Makemake is viewed at? "The occultation was spotted by seven telescopes that viewed the passagefrom slightly different angles. In some of the telescopes, there was ahint that the starlight didn’t wink out quite as abruptly as in theothers, suggesting that a patch of atmosphere just happened to be linedup with the star." There is still the question of how certain these people can be of the identity of what they are looking at when it is "the size of a quarter sitting 30 miles away." With representatives of "science" telling me more and more often that I shouldn't believe in Jesus or God, (to which questioning of Creation ultimately boils down), what THEY expect us to believe is even more worth questioning.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@SvensKenR 

What rational thought tells us is that there might be a God or not... But because there are so many different fables out there you can indeed safely assume the God of the Bible is fiction...While new data might change my mind no matter what they find out there you will cling to the musing of an ancient goat herder rather than the scientific method... You have no ability to know you are right.... perhaps it it Zeus up there after all and he is pissed.

My guess is that should a God exist such a being would be so alien it would be simply beyond our understanding..... nor would he likely care about us talking monkeys let alone expect to be worshiped which is silly enough to be absurd.

speaking of absurd you folk will talk about how silly evolution is when your idea of the moment of creation and what it looked like is instead where you have a bang and a flash with a puff of smoke and then there are rabbits there and poof there are deer etc... Did the creator say "Tah Dah!" as well?

AMonkey
AMonkey like.author.displayName 1 Like

@SvensKenR That's stupid. The likelihood of more small rocks in space is infinitely greater than any superstitious nonsense. Grow up.

IanMarkKearl
IanMarkKearl

I, for one, am still disappointed in Pluto's demotion, eventhough scientists had good reason to do so.  I mean, I grew up learning about 9 planets and their orbits.  However, I would hate to have to help my kids memorize 30+ planets and their orbits in relation to the sun.  Maybe, someday, there will be nine planets once more.

StevenNewman
StevenNewman

So, how many of those TNOs have an atmosphere?  Any, lots, none?  If none, then how about we bring back Pluto? Or am I just an old curmudgeon?

rapier1
rapier1

@StevenNewman Atmosphere would depend on a few things - the most important of which would be if the surface fo the object gets warm enough to allow the frozen gases to thaw out. Size doesn't matter nearly as much as distance from a heat source.

IanMarkKearl
IanMarkKearl

Then you would have to demote Mercury because it does not have an atmosphere.  There have to be guidelines somewhere.  I, too, hate the fact that Pluto was demoted because, like you, I grew up learning about Pluto and its orbit around the sun.  Since the Kepler Belt is still a rather "new" discovery, there may be a rock out there that does meet the planetary qualifications.  Only time will tell, no punn intended.

IanMarkKearl
IanMarkKearl

I just saw my mistake.  I meant to say Kuiper Belt rather than Keplar Belt.