The Dwarf Planets       Eris

Mike Brown

On August 24th 2006 the word "planet" was given its first-ever scientific definition by a vote of the International Astronomical Union. With the raising of a few yellow cards in Prague, Pluto was demoted from full-fledged planet to "dwarf planet." Eris, originally called  2003 UB313, sometimes called Xena, sometimes called the "10th planet," which in many ways precipitated this final debate, becomes the largest known dwarf planet. Unless astronomers revisit this issue at some point in the future, it is unlikely that there will ever be more than eight planets. While some still continue to mourn the loss of Pluto from the pantheon of planets, it is much more interesting to consider this new class of dwarf planets, instead.

What is a dwarf planet?

When the final vote on the definition of "planet" was made, and the eight dominant bodies in the solar system were declared (quite rationally) a class separate from the others, a new class of objects was defined. The "dwarf planets" are all of those objects which are not one of the eight dominant bodies (Mercury through Neptune) yet still, at least in one way, resemble a planet. The best definition heard so far is that a dwarf planet is something that looks like a planet, but is not a planet. The dwarf planets are bodies in the solar system which are large enough to become round due to their own gravitational attraction. Why do astronomers care about round? If you place a boulder in space it will just stay whatever irregular shape it is. If you add more boulders to it you can still have an irregular pile. But if you add enough boulders to the pile they will eventually pull themselves into a round shape. This transition from irregularly shaped to round objects is important in the solar system, and, in some ways, marks the transition from an object without and with interesting geological and planetary processes occuring (there are many many other transitions that are equally important, however, a fact that tends to be ignored in these discussions).

How many dwarf planets are there?

There are two ways to look at this question. First is to ask: acording to the official list kept by the IAU, how many dwarf planets are there? The current answer (as of 1 April 2007) is only three. The asteroid Ceres is the only asteroid known to be round. Pluto is also considered a dwarf planet. And Eris, a little larger than Pluto, is a dwarf planet also. Three is all the IAU will currently deal with.

Reality, however, does not pay much attention to official lists kept by the IAU or by anyone else. A more interesting question to ask is: how many round objects are there in the solar system that are not planets? These are, by the definition, dwarf planets, whether or not they ever make it to any offiicially sanctioned list. If the category of dwarf planet is important, then it is the reality that is important, not the official list.

So how many dwarf planets are there? Ceres is still the only asteroid that is known to be round. After that it gets complicated. All of the rest of the new dwarf planets are in the distant region of the Kuiper belt, where we can't actually see them well enough to know for sure if they are round or not.

While we can't see most of the objects in the Kuiper belt well enough to determine whether they are round or not, we can estimate how big an object has to be before it becomes round and therefore how many objects in the Kuiper belt are likely round. In the asteroid belt Ceres, with a diameter of 900 km, is the only object large enough to be round, so somewhere around 900 km is a good cutoff for rocky bodies like asteroids. Kuiper belt objects have a lot of ice in their interiors, though. Ice is not as hard as rock, so it less easily withstands the force of gravity, and it takes less force to make an ice ball round. The best estimate for how big an icy body needs to be to become round comes from looking at icy satellites of the giant planets. The smallest body that is generally round is Saturn's satellite Mimas, which has a diameter of about 400 km. Several satellites which have diameters around 200 km are not round. So somewhere between 200 and 400 km an icy body becomes round. Objects with more ice will become round at smaller sizes while those with less rock might be bigger. We will take 400 km as a reasonable lower limit and assume that anything larger than 400 km in the Kuiper belt is round, and thus a dwarf planet.

How many objects larger than 400 km are there in the Kuiper belt? We can't answer this question precisely, because we don't know the sizes of more than a handful of Kuiper belt objects (for an explanation why, see the discussion on the size of  Eris), but, again, we can make a reasonable guess. If we assume that the typical small Kuiper belt object reflects 10% of the sunlight that hits its surface we know how bright a 400 km object would be in the Kuiper belt. As of late August 2006,  44 objects this size or larger in the Kuiper belt (including, of course, Eris and Pluto), and one (Sedna) in the region beyond the Kuiper belt. In addition our large ongoing Palomar survey has detected approximately 30 more objects of this size which are currently undergoing detailed study.

We have not yet completed our survey of the Kuiper belt. Our best estimate is that a complete survey of the Kuiper belt would double this number.
For now, the number of known objects in the solar system which are likely to be round is 53, with the number jumping to 80 when the objects from our survey are announced, and to ~200 when the Kuiper belt is fully surveyed.

Beyond the Kuiper belt there may be even more dwarf planets than in the Kuiper belt. Our best guess is that the region where Sedna resides could contain another ~2000 dwarf planets.

The  new dwarf planets in the solar system are very different from the previous 8 planets. Most are so small that they are smaller across than the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco. They are so small that about 30,000 of them could fit inside the earth.

What does the new solar system look like?

  Here is the before (black circles with nine planets) and after (add red ellipses to show the dwarf planets) views of the solar system:

(images may be freely used; credit: Mike Brown, Caltech)

In order from closest to furthest, the dwarf planets are shown below (with the planets, shown for comparison, in blue). A few of them have been studied well enough that we know interesting details. Click the links to learn more.......

from sun
axis, AU)
estimated size
2004TY364 38.72 540
2002KX14 39.01 560
2002XV93 39.22 430
2003VS2 39.27 610
1999TC36 39.27 440
2001QF298 39.30 490
39.34 1100
2003AZ84 39.45 710
39.65 980
39.76 480
2005RN43 41.53 740
1995SM55 41.64 470
2002MS4 41.90 740
2004SB60 41.97 560
2004GV9 42.23 680
2002UX25 42.53 810
42.90 780
2002TX300 43.11 800
1996TO66 43.19 540
2003OP32 43.24 650
2003EL61 43.31 2000
43.58 1290
2003QW90 43.65 560
1999CD158 43.69 410
1997CS29 43.87 410
2000CN105 44.65 430
1998WH24 45.56 450
2005FY9 45.66 1600
2004PR107 45.75 520
2003MW12 45.94 740
2002CY248 46.18 410
2002KW14 47.08 510
2002AW197 47.30 940
2002WC19 47.67 410
2003QX113 49.56 450
2003FY128 49.77 430
2001UR163 51.40 620
2002TC302 55.02 710
1999DE9 55.72 490
2004XR190 57.36 540
2000YW134 57.77 430
67.69 2400
2005RM43 89.73 560
486.0 1800

Who has discovered dwarf planets?

 Many people have found dwarf planets, starting with the discovery of Ceres by Piazzo in 1801, continuing with Pluto by Tombaugh in 1930, and the moving to the discovery of the many many objects in the Kuiper belt begining in 1992. For the likely dwarf planets listed above, here is the list of discoverers (some planets were discovered by teams which change a bit, in general the team name or the team leader is listed. Sometimes no discoverer is recorded):