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May 1, 2016

A new micro moon is found in the Outer Darkness beyond Pluto

In the dark recesses of the outer Solar System, an almost invisible micro-moon has been found orbiting a bright-ish dwarf planet

Our Sun depicted in the background of Makemake and its micro moon
Our Sun depicted in the background of Makemake and its micro moon

The aged but functional Hubble Space Telescope has found a tiny moon orbiting the dwarf planet Makemake in the Kuiper Belt, almost seven light hours from the Sun.

Makemake was discovered in 2005 by an American ground telescope, but the correct pronunciation of its Polynesian name (MAH-kay MAH kay) was only sorted out in recent times.

The finding of its moon last month has cast light on a place where light is incredibly dim at the best of times so far away from the Sun, and manymany more micro worlds, like Makemake, are thought exist within the Kuiper Belt of objects believed to have been left over from the early aeons of the formation of the first planets when the Sun itself was a newly born star. Makemake is some 400 light minutes from the Sun, compared to an average distance of eight minutes 20 seconds for the Earth.

NASA published the artistic rendering  above of Makemake, its as yet unnamed moon, and the distant Sun, with links to additional information for the curious, although they aren’t as useful as they could be and additional searches will bring up the invaluable NASA pages that should have been linked to this Astronomy Photo of the Day page.

Some key facts. Makemake and micro moon orbit the Sun once every 310 Earth years, compared to the Pluto-Charon binary dwarf planets, which do this in 246 years.

Makemake has an apparent diameter of just over 1400 kms (compared to Pluto’s 2372 kms ) and its tiny moon has a diameter of about 160 kms. The moon unlike its dwarf planet reflects very little of the light it receives. Think of a very dark cinder coloured object slightly wider than the greater suburban sprawls of Sydney or Melbourne against the comparatively more luminous cosmic background of our own galaxy’s milky way of nebulas and stars.

Whatever lies on the surface of the tiny moon, its planet is comparatively visually bright.

To quote from a more useful NASA document:

Astronomers found signs of frozen nitrogen on Makemake’s surface. Frozen ethane and methane have also been detected on the surface. Astronomers believe the methane may actually be present in pellets as large as one centimeter in diameter. They found evidence of tholins, molecules that form whenever solar ultraviolet light interacts with substances such as ethane and methane. Tholins usually cause a reddish-brown colour and Makemake does have a reddish colour in observations.

But wait (maybe decades) there will be more. As dwarf planet Pluto showed when NASA’s New Horizons examined it, and binary partner Charon and its smaller moons in July last year, what looked like a reddish dot even to the powerful Hubble Space Telescope had far more by way of features than anticipated. Once latter 21st century space probes and new generation telescopes catch up with Makemake, there will be surprises.

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