Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Haumea: A Weird World and Ice Cubes in the Kuiper Belt

"The Weirdest Object in the Solar System?"
Space.com (June 22, 2009)

"The dwarf planets and other objects that litter the Kuiper belt in the far reaches of our solar system are a strange bunch, but astronomers have found what they think might be the weirdest one.

"Discovered on Dec. 28, 2004 (catalogued as 2003 EL61 and nicknamed 'Santa' for a time), the minor planet now known as the dwarf planet Haumea, to honor its Hawaiian discovery, is as big across as Pluto and one-third of its mass, but shaped something 'like a big squashed cigar,' said one of the astronomers who studies the object, Mike Brown of Caltech...."

That pair of images shows the two extremes of Haumea's appearance as it spins. It apparently rotates once every four hours, which makes it "...the fastest spinning object in the solar system...." I'm taking that statement with a grain of salt: but that's very fast rotation, indeed.

Haumea also has two satellites: the only Kuiper Belt object known to have more than one. And, the satellites are made of water ice.

Besides the two satellites, astronomers have found about 10 pieces of Haumea - all made of water ice.

"...These 'big cubes of ice,' ... also dispelled one notion about the nature of the Kuiper belt. Astronomers had thought that dust in the region would coat any objects and obscure their true surface...

"...Asked if there were any ideas as to why the dust wasn't coating the ice shards, [Mike] Brown replied, 'No. None. Zero.'..."

So far, Haumea is a quite satisfactorily puzzling dwarf planet. And, this article gives a pretty good overview of what we know - and don't know - about it.

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