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Canadian astronomer ‘excited’ as team discovers far-out dwarf planet

‘It’s really out there,’ says UBC prof, of international research team’s ultra-distant eureka.

The Canada-France-Hawaii telescope in Hawaii provided the images used by an international research team — including several B.C. astronomers — to discover a new dwarf planet.

Vadim Kurland / Flickr

The Canada-France-Hawaii telescope in Hawaii provided the images used by an international research team — including several B.C. astronomers — to discover a new dwarf planet.

Canadian astronomers have helped make a far-out find some 12 billion km from our sun: a new dwarf planet with an “unusual” 700-year orbit.

Spotted by an international team that includes top researchers in Vancouver and Victoria, it is the largest object in the solar system that Canadians have ever found.

And according to University of British Columbia’s Brett Gladman, the crew behind the discovery isn’t letting the fact that it’s “smallish” get in the way of their excitement — the object’s diameter is barely wider than B.C., making it what’s known as a “dwarf planet.”

“Think of it as a smallish planet,” explained Gladman, who holds a Canada Research Chair in planetary astronomy. “It’s not quite big enough to be a planet, but it’s still an impressive object with enough gravity to pull it into a spherical shape.”

“It’s about twice as far from the sun as Neptune’s orbit, so it’s really out there.”

First spotted in late February, using five-month-old images from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope at the top of the volcano Maunakea, for now the dwarf is simply named “2015 RR245.”

The Outer Solar System Origins Survey researchers found it by comparing very high-resolution photographs taken through the telescope. Computers then scanned for any dots that moved between frames — but it took human observers to sift through the results to make the final call.  

However, until more detailed measurements can confirm its size and shape more precisely, technically it’s still a “dwarf planet candidate.”

Nevertheless, “it’s basically as good a case as the majority of other dwarf planet candidates,” Gladman said. “Everybody was quite excited.

“We expected to find a bright thing eventually, but didn’t expect it would be so far away or as large.”

It's not the first time this year UBC has unearthed other planets, but usually they're out of our solar system. An undergraduate student, for example, discovered four "exoplanets" orbiting a distant star this spring.

One surprising aspect of the new discovery, Gladman said, is that “2015 RR245" has a massive orbit that will see it come close to Neptune — despite its farthest reach being on the “outer edge” of the Kuiper Belt, a band of extremely distant objects orbiting our sun.

“Its very eccentric orbit is a little surprising,” he said. “If it actually is mildly unstable, which is possible given what we know, it would be surprising that such a big thing has survived so long. We’ll have to wait and see.

“That might reveal even more surprises.”

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