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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dwarf-Planet Makemake has planetary scientists exploring beyond dwarf Pluto

A recent opportunity to watch the dwarf planet Makemake's shadow gave astronomers clues to its size, shape and surprising lack of any atmosphere. Makemake, discovered on March 31, 2005, is 52 astronomical units from the sun.

Makemake, outside the orbit of Pluto, is among other dwarf planets, specifically Eris and  Haumea. The known dwarf planets join other large trans-Neptunian objects within the solar system. 

The NASA New Horizons spacecraft, now slated for a rendezvous flyby of Pluto in the summer of 2015, will explore one or two ancient Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) in an planned extended mission. A KBO flyby is expected in 2018 or 2019, though it could be as early as 2016 or as late as 2021.

Since no other Kuiper Belt mission is planned - either by NASA or by any space agency - New Horizons is very likely to be the only spacecraft that will explore KBOs in the lifetime of most people alive today.

Known objects in the Kuiper belt, derived from data from the Minor Planet Center. Objects in the main belt are colored green, while scattered objects are colored orange. The four outer planets are blue. Neptune's few known trojans are yellow, while Jupiter's are pink. The scattered objects between Jupiter's orbit and the Kuiper belt are known as centaurs. The scale is in astronomical units

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