A Planet of a Planet?

January 5, 2010

When Mike Brown, co-discoverer of Eris, Haumea and Makemake spoke in Arizona a year ago last November, he displayed a graphic of the sky search completed by his team. He announced that they had now equaled the sky area searched by Clyde Tombaugh in his decades of diligent sky scanning. What was obvious were the “holes” in the search. Given the northern hemisphere location of the observing telescopes much of the southern skies could not be seen. Given the length of orbital periods of Kuiper Belt Objects, if an object holds a southern disposition by position, it could be decades before it would be detected. So, one of his original sky search partners, David Rabinowitz, headed for the mountain tops of Chile to fill in some of the celestial canopy not yet examined for Kuiper Belt bodies. Given the vastness of the remaining sky to be examined, there’s potentially a lot of yet unknown Kuiper Belt Objects – as well as stuff out near Sedna – to be found.

Mike Brown weighed in on 2009 YE7 last week. First, he noted the high inclination of the body and stated that even early in working to refine a body’s orbit, inclination is one of the more easily determined attributes (which is why the early nodal position typically remains reliable). The inclination of this body at 29 degrees is high as compared with the “norm” of bodies orbiting the Sun. And 29 degrees is very close to the 28.2 degree inclination of Haumea, once subject to a violent collision which scattered body parts in the Kuiper Belt. What’s more, the absolute magnitude of YE7 is close to that of Haumea.

Brown concluded that YE7 is likely a shrapnel remnant of the collision Haumea endured way back when. This means this body, like the ice chunks in Haumea’s orbit and her two moons, Hi’iaka and Namaka, is one of her offspring. As well, given a similar surface to Haumea, the object would not be as large as one might initially conclude from the measure of absolute magnitude. Brown issued a relatively simple test for astronomers down under with a view of the newly encountered body to confirm his speculation. To date, I have heard of no such confirmation and no doubt this will be confirmed soon.

Should Brown’s suspicion be confirmed, astrologers have an exciting new condition to consider: a planetary body that is not a satellite of another body born of another planet. It’s true that Triton was once a planet unto itself and ultimately the gravity of Uranus grabbed the planet, diminishing it to satellite status. But the YE7 issue is a whole new ball game.

Suggestively, the body would take the name of a Hawaiian deity or at least one of a Pacific Rim culture. I’m going to submit my vote for a Maori name. They were, in fact, blessed with superlative eyes (such that they could see moons of Jupiter with the naked eye) and developed a sophisticated understanding of the heavens. And the Maori departed Hawaii back in ancient days heading for new lands and settled in what we now call New Zealand.

I hope Mike Brown is right. And I hope that like astronomers, astrologers will grasp the amazing singularity of Haumea (and Eris) and expand astrology to remain inclusive of the facts of the heavens instead of persistence in ignoring what is known.

A planet of a planet! Imagine!