Research

Scientists spot solar system's farthest known object - and they've named it 'Farout'

Scientists spot solar system's farthest known object - and they've named it 'Farout'

Scientists have discovered the most distant object known in our solar system, so remote and unusual they chose the nickname "Farout" for the slow-moving, icy, pinkish dwarf planet about 120 to 130 times further from the sun than Earth.

Researchers from the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced the discovery of the planet 2018 VG18 Monday, after confirming the findings of several astronomers at institutions around the country. Farout is estimated to be 500 km (310 miles) in diameter, and to take more than 1,000 years to orbit the Sun.

On November 10, 2018, images captured by astronomers Scott S. Sheppard, from the Carnegie Institution for Science, and David Tholen, from the University of Hawaii, using the Subaru Telescope atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano, were found to have an object that was moving against the backdrop of stars.

Farout's discovery comes less than two months after the discovery of "The Goblin", another distant object in the solar system (about 80 AU from the sun) that astronomers first identified around Halloween.

All that's known about Farout, at the moment, is its distance (120 AU), its size (around 500km across), and its colour (pink!). Neptune is 30 astronomical units away, or 2.8 billion miles, and Pluto, now on the outward leg of its orbit, is 34.5 astronomical units, or 3.2 billion miles from the sun. Along the way, they have discovered more distant solar system objects suggesting that the gravity of something massive is influencing their orbit. The pink dwarf planet is more than three-and-a-half times more distant than the famous, blue dwarf planet Pluto. And with better telescopes, computers, and research methods, astronomers may find more and more bodies in the distant reaches of our system. "But it was found in a similar location on the sky to the other known extreme Solar System objects, suggesting it might have the same type of orbit that majority do". The team came across Farout as they were scanning the solar system for distant planets, including Planet X, a hypothetical planet that astronomers believe could explain the warped orbits of small objects beyond Neptune, officials said.

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The existence of a ninth major planet at the fringes of the Solar System was first proposed by this same research team in 2014 when they discovered 2012 VP113, nicknamed Biden, which is now near 84 AU.

The previous record-holder was the dwarf planet Eris at 96 astronomical units.

The same team behind Farout's discovery also discovered the Goblin, and 2012 VP113, also knows as Biden. "If its orbit never brings it into the giant planet region in our Solar System, then it becomes a big question of how it got out there". The Kuiper belt ends at a distance of about 50 astronomical units, and the space beyond that was thought to be largely empty. Where will Farout's orbit fit in?

Sheppard and his colleagues wouldn't be surprised if a single year on Farout lasts more than 1,000 Earth years. But if it looks like it fits in with the others, that will be even more compelling evidence for the existence of the elusive Planet 9.