Dwarf planets are round and orbit the Sun just like the eight major planets. But unlike planets, dwarf planets are not able to clear their orbital path so there are no similar objects at roughly the same distance from the Sun. A dwarf planet is much smaller than a planet (smaller even than Earth's moon), but it is not a moon. Pluto is the best known of the dwarf planets.
10 Need-to-Know Things About Dwarf Planets:
Dwarf Planets: Overview
What is a planet? We've been asking that question at least since Greek astronomers came up with the word to describe the bright points of light that seemed to wander among fixed stars. Our solar system's planet count has soared as high as 15 before it was decided that some discoveries were different and should be called asteroids.
Many disagreed in 1930 when Pluto was added as our solar system's ninth planet. The debate flared again in 2005 when Eris -- about the same size as Pluto -- was found deep in a zone beyond Neptune called the Kuiper Belt. Was it the 10th planet? Or are Eris and Pluto examples of an intriguing, new kind of world?
The International Astronomical Union decided in 2006 that a new system of classification was needed to describe these new worlds, which are more developed than asteroids, but different than the known planets. Pluto, Eris and the asteroid Ceres became the first dwarf planets. Unlike planets, dwarf planets lack the gravitational muscle to sweep up or scatter objects near their orbits. They end up orbiting the sun in zones of similar objects such as the asteroid and Kuiper belts.
Our solar system's planet count now stands at eight. But the lively debate continues as we continue to explore and make new discoveries.
List of Dwarf Planets
According to the International Astronomical Union, which sets definitions for planetary science, a dwarf planet is a celestial body that:
The main distinction between a dwarf planet and a planet is that planets have cleared the path around the sun while dwarf planets tend to orbit in zones of similar objects that can cross their path around the sun, such as the asteroid and Kuiper belts. Dwarf planets also are generally smaller than the planet Mercury.
The first five recognized dwarf planets are Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Makemake and Haumea. Scientists believe there may be dozens or even more than 100 dwarf planets awaiting discovery.
The IAU recognized Pluto's special place in our solar system by designating dwarf planets that orbit the sun beyond Neptune as plutoids. Eris, which orbits far beyond Neptune, is a plutoid while Ceres, which orbits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is a dwarf planet.
Dwarf Planets: Featured Mission - Dawn
Goals: Dawn is designed to study the conditions and processes of the solar system's earliest epoch by investigating in detail two of the largest protoplanets remaining intact since their formations. The orbiter will visit both the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres, two main asteroid belt worlds that followed very differently evolutionary paths.
Accomplishments: Dawn comprehensively mapped asteroid Vesta, revealing an exotic and diverse planetary building block. The findings are helping scientists unlock some of the secrets of how the solar system, including our own Earth, was formed. It is now en route to dwarf planet Ceres.
Discovered in 1930, Pluto was long considered our solar system's ninth planet. But after the discovery of similar intriguing worlds deeper in the distant Kuiper Belt, icy Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet. This new class of worlds may offer some of the best evidence about the origins of our solar system.
10 Need-to-Know Things About Pluto:
Pluto: Read More
Pluto is classified as a dwarf planet and is also a member of a group of objects that orbit in a disc-like zone beyond the orbit of Neptune called the Kuiper Belt. This distant realm is populated with thousands of miniature icy worlds, which formed early in the history of our solar system. These icy, rocky bodies are called Kuiper Belt objects or transneptunian objects.
Pluto is about two-thirds the diameter of Earth's Moon and probably has a rocky core surrounded by a mantle of water ice. More exotic ices like methane and nitrogen frost coat its surface. Owing to its size and lower density, Pluto's mass is about one-sixth that of Earth's Moon. Pluto is more massive than Ceres - the dwarf planet that resides in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter - by a factor of 20.
Pluto's 248-year-long elliptical orbit can take it as far as 49.3 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. (One AU is the mean distance between Earth and the Sun: about 150 million km or 93 million miles.) From 1979 to 1999, Pluto was actually closer to the Sun than Neptune, and in 1989, Pluto came to within 29.7 AU of the Sun, providing rare opportunities to study this small, cold, distant world.
Since its orbit is so elliptical, when Pluto is close to the sun, its surface ices thaw, rise and temporarily form a thin atmosphere. Pluto's low gravity (about 6 percent of Earth's) causes the atmosphere to be much more extended in altitude than our planet's atmosphere. Pluto becomes much colder during the part of each orbit when it is traveling far away from the sun. During this time, the bulk of the planet's atmosphere is thought to freeze.
Pluto has a very large moon that is almost half its size named Charon, which was discovered in 1978. This moon is so big that Pluto and Charon are sometimes referred to as a double dwarf planet system. The distance between them is 19,640 km (12,200 miles).
The Hubble Space Telescope photographed Pluto and Charon in 1994 when Pluto was about 30 AU from Earth. These photos showed that Charon is grayer than Pluto (which is red), indicating that they have different surface compositions and structure.
Charon's orbit around Pluto takes 6.4 Earth days, and one Pluto rotation (a Pluto day) takes 6.4 Earth days. Charon neither rises nor sets, but hovers over the same spot on Pluto's surface, and the same side of Charon always faces Pluto -- this is called tidal locking. Compared with most of the planets and moons, the Pluto-Charon system is tipped on its side, like Uranus. Pluto's rotation is retrograde: it rotates backwards, from east to west (Uranus and Venus also have retrograde rotations).
It isn't known whether Pluto has a magnetic field, but its small size and slow rotation suggest little or no magnetic field.
Because Pluto and Charon are so small and far away, they are extremely difficult to observe from Earth. In the late 1980s, Pluto and Charon passed in front of each other repeatedly for several years. Observations of these rare events allowed astronomers to make rudimentary maps of each body showing areas of relative brightness and darkness.
In 2005, scientists photographing Pluto with the Hubble Space Telescope in preparation for the New Horizons mission found two tiny moons orbiting in the same plane as Charon. These two moons, named Nix and Hydra, are two to three times farther away from Pluto than Charon.
n 2011 and 2012, scientists used Hubble to spot two more moons (originally designated P4 and P5). In 2013, the two moons were named Kerberos (P4) and Styx (P5).
How Pluto Got its Name
Pluto is the only world named by an 11-year-old girl. In 1930, Venetia Burney of Oxford, England, suggested to her grandfather that the new discovery be named for the Roman god the underworld. He forwarded the name to the Lowell Observatory and it was selected. Pluto's moons are named for other mythological figures associated with the underworld. Charon is named for the river Styx boatman who ferries souls in the underworld; Nix is named for the mother of Charon, who is also the goddess of darkness and night; Hydra is named for the nine-headed serpent that guards the underworld; Kerberos is named after the three-headed dog of Greek mythology; and Styx is named for the mythological river that separates the world of the living from the realm of the dead.
Pluto's place in mythology can get a little muddled, so we asked Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver, chair of the Department of Classics in Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, to clarify the origins of the name: "Pluto is the name of the Roman god of the Underworld, equivalent to the Greek Hades. However, the Greek name "Plouton" (from which the Romans derived their name "Pluto") was also occasionally used as an alternative name for Hades. But Pluto is definitely the Roman spelling."
The symbol for dwarf planet Pluto is a monogram made up of P and L in Pluto (and also the initials of Percival Lowell, who predicted its discovery).
Pluto: Significant Dates
Pluto: Featured Mission - New Horizons
Goals: NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is designed to make the first close-up study of Pluto and its moons and other icy worlds in the distant Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft has seven scientific instruments to study the atmospheres, surfaces, interiors and intriguing environments of Pluto and its distant neighbors.
Accomplishments: The spacecraft is still en route to its primary science target.
Kuiper Belt & Oort Cloud
The Kuiper Belt is a disc-shaped region of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune -- billions of kilometers from our sun. Pluto and Eris are the best known of these icy worlds. There may be hundreds more of these ice dwarfs out there. The Kuiper Belt and even more distant Oort Cloud are believed to be the home of comets that orbit our sun.
Kuiper Belt & Oort Cloud: Overview
Kuiper Belt & Oort Cloud: Read More
In 1950, Dutch astronomer Jan Oort proposed that certain comets come from a vast, extremely distant, spherical shell of icy bodies surrounding the solar system. This giant swarm of objects is now named the Oort Cloud, occupying space at a distance between 5,000 and 100,000 astronomical units. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the mean distance of Earth from the sun: about 150 million km or 93 million miles.) The outer extent of the Oort Cloud is believed to be in the region of space where the sun's gravitational influence is weaker than the influence of nearby stars.
The Oort Cloud probably contains 0.1 to 2 trillion icy bodies in solar orbit. Occasionally, giant molecular clouds, stars passing nearby, or tidal interactions with the Milky Way's disc disturb the orbits of some of these bodies in the outer region of the Oort Cloud, causing the object to fall into the inner solar system as a so-called long-period comet. These comets have very large, eccentric orbits and take thousands of years to circle the sun. In recorded history, they are observed in the inner solar system only once.
In contrast, short-period comets take less than 200 years to orbit the sun and they travel approximately in the plane in which most of the planets orbit. They are presumed to come from a disc-shaped region beyond Neptune called the Kuiper Belt, named for astronomer Gerard Kuiper. (It is sometimes called the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, recognizing the independent and earlier discussion by Kenneth Edgeworth.) The objects in the Oort Cloud and in the Kuiper Belt are presumed to be remnants from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago.
The Kuiper Belt extends from about 30 to 55 AU and is probably populated with hundreds of thousands of icy bodies larger than 100 km (62 miles) across and an estimated trillion or more comets.
In 1992, astronomers detected a faint speck of light from an object about 42 AU from the sun -- the first time a Kuiper Belt object (or KBO for short) had been sighted. More than 1,300 KBOs have been identified since 1992. (They are sometimes called Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt objects, and they are sometimes called transneptunian objects or TNOs for short.)
Because KBOs are so distant, their sizes are difficult to measure. The calculated diameter of a KBO depends on assumptions about how reflective the object's surface is. With infrared observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope, most of the largest KBOs have known sizes.
One of the most unusual KBOs is Haumea, which is a part of a collisional family orbiting the sun. The parent body, Haumea, apparently collided with another object that was roughly half its size. The impact blasted large icy chunks away and sent Haumea reeling, causing it to spin end-over-end every four hours. It spins so fast that it has pulled itself into the shape of a squashed American football. Haumea and two small moons -- Hi'iaka and Namaka -- make up the family.
In March 2004, a team of astronomers announced the discovery of a planet-like transneptunian object orbiting the sun at an extreme distance, in one of the coldest known regions of our solar system. The object (2003VB12), since named Sedna for an Inuit goddess who lives at the bottom of the frigid Arctic ocean, approaches the sun only briefly during its 10,500-year solar orbit. It never enters the Kuiper Belt, whose outer boundary region lies at about 55 AU -- instead, Sedna travels in a long, elliptical orbit between 76 and nearly 1,000 AU from the sun. Since Sedna's orbit takes it to such an extreme distance, its discoverers have suggested that it is the first observed body belonging to the inner Oort Cloud.
In July 2005, a team of scientists announced the discovery of a KBO that was initially thought to be about 10 percent larger than Pluto. The object, temporarily designated 2003UB313 and later named Eris, orbits the sun about once every 560 years, its distance varying from about 38 to 98 AU. (For comparison, Pluto travels from 29 to 49 AU in its solar orbit.) Eris has a small moon named Dysnomia. More recent measurements show it to be slightly smaller than Pluto.
The discovery of Eris -- orbiting the sun and similar in size to Pluto (which was then designated the ninth planet) -- forced astronomers to consider whether Eris should be classified as the tenth planet. Instead, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union created a new class of objects called dwarf planets, and placed Pluto, Eris and the asteroid Ceres in this category.
While no spacecraft has yet traveled to the Kuiper Belt, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at Pluto in 2015. The New Horizons mission team hopes to study one or more KBOs after its Pluto mission is complete.
How the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud Got Their Names
Both distant regions are named for the astronomers who predicted their existence -- Gerard Kuiper and Jan Oort. Objects discovered in the Kuiper Belt get their names from diverse mythologies. Eris is named for the Greek goddess of discord and strife. Haumea is named for a Hawaiian goddess of fertility and childbirth. Comets from both regions are generally named for the person who discovered them.