Dwarf Planet ‘Makemake’ Lacks Atmosphere

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By Jenalyn Villamarin | November 24, 2012 12:07 PM EST

In a new study, astronomers found out that the far-away dwarf planet Makemake lacks atmosphere. With the use of the European Southern Observatory's telescopes in Chile, the astronomers were able to observe the hidden physical characteristic of the dwarf planet through a chance passage in front of a distant star.

Previous examination of the dwarf planet Makemake have shown its similarities to fellow dwarf planets which led a few astronomers to believe that its atmosphere would be the same with Pluto. Now, the recent study of astronomers led by Jose Luis Ortiz of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia, CSIC, Spain revealed that Makemake is not significantly surrounded by an atmosphere.

The international team merged the numerous observations made with the use of three telescopes at European Southern Observatory's La Silla and Paranal observing sites in Chile: the Very Large Telescope, New Technology Telescope and TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) as well as the data from other small telescopes in South America.

"As Makemake passed in front of the star and blocked it out, the star disappeared and reappeared very abruptly, rather than fading and brightening gradually. This means that the little dwarf planet has no significant atmosphere," Ortiz stated. "It was thought that Makemake had a good chance of having developed an atmosphere and that it has no sign of one at all shows just how much we have yet to learn about these mysterious bodies. Finding out about Makemake's properties for the first time is a big step forward in our study of select club of icy dwarf planets," Ortiz further added.  

The astronomer's latest observations on Makemake's characteristics, size and density provide supplementary details about the dwarf planet. "It's like trying to study a coin from a distance of 30 miles (48 kilometers) or more. We think Makemake is a sphere flattened slightly at both poles and mostly covered with very white ices mainly of methane," Ortiz explained.

Makemake's lack of atmosphere continues to be a huge mystery but astronomer Jose Luis Ortiz has a theory. "Pluto is covered in nitrogen ice. When the sun heats this volatile material, it turns straight into a gas, creating Pluto's atmosphere. Makemake lacks nitrogen ice on its surface so there is nothing for the sun to heat into a gas to provide an atmosphere," Ortiz declared.

Ortiz also added that Makemake has less mass and weaker gravitational field than Pluto which means that the dwarf planet possibly did not hold enough on its nitrogen. "Methane ice will also transform into a gas when heated. But since the dwarf planet is nearly at its furthest distance from the sun, Makemake's surface methane may still be frozen. And even if the methane were to transform into a gas, any resulting atmosphere would cover, at most, only ten percent of the planet" Ortiz explained.

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