Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Hubble harvests distant solar system objects

Date:
September 13, 2010
Source:
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Summary:
Beyond the orbit of Neptune reside countless icy rocks known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). One of the biggest, Pluto, is classified as a dwarf planet. The region also supplies us with comets such as famous Comet Halley. Most TNOs are small and receive little sunlight, making them faint and difficult to spot. Now, astronomers using clever techniques to cull the data archives of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have added 14 new TNOs to the catalog. Their method promises to turn up hundreds more.

This is an artist's concept of a craggy piece of Solar System debris that belongs to a class of bodies called trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). Astronomers culling the data archives of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have added 14 new TNOs to the catalog. The newfound TNOs range from 25 to 60 miles (40-100 km) across. Their method promises to turn up hundreds more. In this illustration, the distant Sun is reduced to a bright star at a distance of over 3 billion miles.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Beyond the orbit of Neptune reside countless icy rocks known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). One of the biggest, Pluto, is classified as a dwarf planet. The region also supplies us with comets such as famous Comet Halley. Most TNOs are small and receive little sunlight, making them faint and difficult to spot.

Related Articles


Now, astronomers using clever techniques to cull the data archives of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have added 14 new TNOs to the catalog. Their method promises to turn up hundreds more.

"Trans-Neptunian objects interest us because they are building blocks left over from the formation of the solar system," explained lead author Cesar Fuentes, formerly with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and now at Northern Arizona University.

As TNOs slowly orbit the sun, they move against the starry background, appearing as streaks of light in time exposure photographs. The team developed software to analyze hundreds of Hubble images hunting for such streaks. After promising candidates were flagged, the images were visually examined to confirm or refute each discovery.

Most TNOs are located near the ecliptic -- a line in the sky marking the plane of the solar system (since the solar system formed from a disk of material). Therefore, the team searched within 5 degrees of the ecliptic to increase their chance of success.

They found 14 objects, including one binary (two TNOs orbiting each other like a miniature Pluto-Charon system). All were very faint, with most measuring magnitude 25-27 (more than 100 million times fainter than objects visible to the unaided eye).

By measuring their motion across the sky, astronomers calculated an orbit and distance for each object. Combining the distance and brightness (plus an assumed albedo or reflectivity), they then estimated the size. The newfound TNOs range from 25 to 60 miles (40-100 km) across.

Unlike planets, which tend to have very flat orbits (known as low inclination), some TNOs have orbits significantly tilted from the ecliptic (high inclination). The team examined the size distribution of TNOs with low- versus high-inclination orbits to gain clues about how the population has evolved over the past 4.5 billion years.

Generally, smaller trans-Neptunian objects are the shattered remains of bigger TNOs. Over billions of years, these objects smack together, grinding each other down. The team found that the size distribution of TNOs with low- versus high-inclination orbits is about the same as objects get fainter and smaller. Therefore, both populations (low and high inclination) have similar collisional histories.

This initial study examined only one-third of a square degree of the sky, meaning that there is much more area to survey. Hundreds of additional TNOs may lurk in the Hubble archives at higher ecliptic latitudes. Fuentes and his colleagues intend to continue their search.

"We have proven our ability to detect and characterize TNOs even with data intended for completely different purposes," Fuentes said.

This research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "Hubble harvests distant solar system objects." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100913111129.htm>.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. (2010, September 13). Hubble harvests distant solar system objects. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100913111129.htm
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "Hubble harvests distant solar system objects." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100913111129.htm (accessed November 24, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Space & Time News

Monday, November 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Soyuz Spacecraft Docks With International Space Station: NASA

Soyuz Spacecraft Docks With International Space Station: NASA

AFP (Nov. 24, 2014) A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying Italy's first female astronaut safely docks with the International Space Station, according to NASA. Duration: 00:40 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Multi-National Crew Safely Docks at Space Station

Multi-National Crew Safely Docks at Space Station

Reuters - US Online Video (Nov. 24, 2014) A Russian Soyuz rocket delivers a multi-national trio to the International Space Station. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Soyuz Docks With Int'l Space Station

Raw: Soyuz Docks With Int'l Space Station

AP (Nov. 23, 2014) A Russian capsule carrying three astronauts from Russia, the United States and Italy has arrived at the International Space Station. (Nov. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Crew Blasts Off for Int'l Space Station

Raw: Crew Blasts Off for Int'l Space Station

AP (Nov. 23, 2014) A Russian capsule carrying three astronauts from Russia, the United States and Italy has blasted off for the International Space Station. (Nov. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins