Skip to comments.Brilliant! Tenth planet turns out to be a shiner
Posted on 04/19/2006 4:50:42 PM PDT by neverdem
Xena, unofficially called the 10th planet, is the second-most-shiny known object in the solar system, new observations show. Scientists are scrambling to explain where Xena got its sparkle. Some suggest that it might have enough heat to belch methane, despite being in the coldest region of the solar system.
The new notion of Xena arises from Hubble Space Telescope images that were released this week. The images reveal that Xena, the most distant known object in our solar system, isn't quite the big shot that scientists had thought it was.
The chilly outpost's diameter2,384 kilometersmakes it about 5 percent larger than Pluto, Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and his colleagues announced April 11. That's still large enough for Xena to retain its unofficial status as a planet, Brown says, but considerably smaller than ground-based observations had indicated (SN: 8/6/05, p. 83: http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20050806/fob2.asp).
Researchers have difficulty determining the size of remote denizens of the solar system because a large object that reflects a small amount of sunlight looks the same as a small object reflecting a lot of light.
But for Xena, the sharp Hubble pictures erase that ambiguity.
The relatively small size shown in those images indicates that the body reflects 86 percent of sunlight. Brown says he was "thoroughly shocked" by that finding. Researchers had assumed that Xena's surface was similar to that of Pluto, which reflects 60 percent of sunlight. Saturn's moon Enceladus, recently shown to be shooting out a geyser of water vapor (SN: 1/7/06, p. 13: Available to subscribers at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20060107/note11.asp), is the only solar system object known to have a higher reflectivity, notes Brown.
Scientists have proposed two scenarios to explain Xena's high reflectivity. In one, a jet of methane leaks continuously from Xena. The methane jet freezes as it emerges, continually blanketing the surface with fresh snow.
What's the heat source that could drive such activity? "Beats me," says planetary scientist Rick Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He notes that gravitational tugs from a neighboring moon sometimes generate heat within a body, but Xena's moon is too small to do that.
Another source of heat, sunlight, would penetrate only a few tens of meters below Xena's surface and would probably have long ago depleted the reserves of methane there.
In the other model, the planet has a methane-rich atmosphere created during the portion of its 560-year-long orbit when it's nearest the sun. As Xena speeds away, the atmosphere freezes on the surface as a bright frost. However, Brown says, it's not clear that such frost would be bright enough to account for the shininess of Xena's surface.
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2006. Hubble finds that the 'tenth planet' is slightly larger than Pluto. Space Telescope Science Institute news release. April 11. Available at http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/newsdesk/
Cowen, R. 2006. Moon spray. Science News 169(Jan. 7):13. Available to subscribers at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20060107/note11.asp.
______. 2005. Bigger than Pluto: Tenth planet or icy leftover?. Science News 168(Aug. 6):83. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20050806/fob2.asp.
For additional images and background material about Xena, go to http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/newsdesk/
For additional background information about Xena from Mike Brown, go to http://www.gps.caltech.edu/~mbrown/planetlila/.
A version of this article written for younger readers is available at Science News for Kids.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Department of Earth and Planetary Science
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Mailstop Code 54-410
Cambridge, MA 02139-4301
California Institute of Technology
Division of Geophysics & Planetary Science
Mailstop Code 150-21
Pasadena, CA 92215
From Science News, Vol. 169, No. 15, April 15, 2006, p. 230.
Copyright (c) 2006 Science Service. All rights reserved.
Xena may be a shiner but Xenu is, of course invisible.
Congrats. You're a planet.
Sounds like a few friends of mine...maybe they should name this planet in honor of them.
I belched a little methane last night....
"In one, a jet of methane leaks continuously from Xena."
Maybe they're mistaking it for Uranus...
Lord John Whorfin: Where-a are we going?
Red Lectroids: Planet Ten!
Lord John Whorfin: When?
Red Lectroids: Real soon!
What is the albedo of fresh snow? It's bright, but it isn't 100%.
The reason for the reflectivity is readily apparent. The inhabitants of Xena all wear aluminum foil around their heads to keep out the emanations.
For a long while, since it was too cold to fish, they watched ABC and CBS. Then, about 2 decades ago, ashen-faced and crestfallen, they all began to spontaneously buy up and adorn their craniums with the highly reflective foil.
We don't know why... we can only speculate. There were many job openings, but they didn't want to do them, and could no longer attract illegal aliens to do so.
"Too effing cold," an Andrusian was heard to remark as he passed them by. "I'm drawn to LA, instead".
Yeah, but they are very colorful, which means they aren't reflecting 100% of everything. Lots of purple stuff and lots of gold stuff.
Oh, yeah, the purple stuff. Forgot that.
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