From Caltech Astronomer Mike Brown: “How many dwarf planets are there in the outer solar system? (updates daily)”

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Mike Brown

How many dwarf planets are there in the outer solar system? (updates daily)
(As of 1 Nov 2013 also includes latest thermal and occultation results)
As of Sat Oct 15 2016
there are:
10 objects which are nearly certainly dwarf planets,
30 objects which are highly likely to be dwarf planets,
75 objects which are likely to be dwarf planets,
147 objects which are probably dwarf planets, and
695 objects which are possibly dwarf planets.

In 2006, when the vote on the definition of “planet” was made, and the eight dominant bodies in the solar system were declared (quite rationally) a class separate from the others, a new class of objects was defined. The “dwarf planets” are all of those objects which are not one of the eight dominant bodies (Mercury through Neptune) yet still, at least in one way, resemble a planet. In other words, a dwarf planet is something that looks like a planet, but is not a planet. Specifically this means that dwarf planets are bodies in the solar system which are large enough to become round due to their own gravitational attraction.

Why do astronomers care about round? If you place a boulder in space it will just stay whatever irregular shape it is. If you add more boulders to it you can still have an irregular pile. But if you add enough boulders to the pile they will eventually pull themselves into a round shape. This transition from irregularly shaped to round objects is important in the solar system, and, in some ways, marks the transition from an object without and with interesting geological and planetary processes occuring (there are many many other transitions that are equally important, however, a fact that tends to be overlooked in these discussions).

How many dwarf planets are there? Ceres is the only asteroid that is known to be round.

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Ceres

After that it gets complicated. All of the rest of the new dwarf planets are in the distant region of the Kuiper belt, where we can’t actually see them well enough to know for sure if they are round or not.

Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center
Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center

While we can’t see most of the objects in the Kuiper belt well enough to determine whether they are round or not, we can estimate how big an object has to be before it becomes round and therefore how many objects in the Kuiper belt are likely round. In the asteroid belt Ceres, with a diameter of 900 km, is the only object large enough to be round, so somewhere around 900 km is a good cutoff for rocky bodies like asteroids. Most Kuiper belt objects have a lot of ice in their interiors, though. Ice is not as hard as rock, so it less easily withstands the force of gravity, and it takes less force to make an ice ball round. The best estimate for how big an icy body needs to be to become round comes from looking at icy satellites of the giant planets. The smallest body that is generally round is Saturn’s satellite Mimas, which has a diameter of about 400 km.

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Mimas

Several satellites which have diameters around 200 km are not round. So somewhere between 200 and 400 km an icy body becomes round. Objects with more ice will become round at smaller sizes while those with less rock might be bigger. We will take 400 km as a reasonable lower limit and assume that anything larger than 400 km in the Kuiper belt is round, and thus a dwarf planet.

How many objects do we know in the Kuiper belt that are 400 km or larger? That question is harder to answer, because we don’t actually know how big most of the objects in the Kuiper belt are. While we can see how bright there are, we don’t know if they are bright because they are larger or are highly reflective. In the past, we had to just throw our hands up in the air and say we don’t know enough to even make reasonable guesses. But in the past few years, systematic measurements of the sizes of objects from the Spitzer Space Telescope and now the Herschel Space Telescope have taught us enought that we can make some reasonable estimates of how reflective objects are.

NASA/Spitzer Telescope
NASA/Spitzer Telescope

ESA/Herschel
ESA/Herschel

(It’s complicated: read the details here ) These reasonable estimates, combined with all available actually measurements, give us the list of the largest Kuiper belt objects, sorted by diameter, below. Carefully note the lack of any error bars. Every single measurement or estimate below is uncertain to some extent or another. I don’t include the individual uncertainties in the table, but instead use the ensemble uncertainties to inform classification below. In other words: take the sizes of specific objects with bigger or smaller grains of salt.

See the full article here .

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