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Dwarf Planets: Science & Facts About the Solar System’s Smaller Worlds

Dwarf Planet Eris
Dwarf planet Eris
Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Dwarf planets are worlds that are too small to be considered full-fledged planets, but too large to fall into smaller categories.

In recent years, there's been a lot of hubbub about Pluto losing its status as one of the planets in our solar system. Pluto is no longer considered the ninth planet in the series of major planetary objects, but instead is now just one of the many so-called "dwarf planets."

Astronomers estimate that there could be as many as 200 dwarf planets in the solar system and Kuiper Belt. But the differences between planets and dwarf planets may not be obvious at first. 

Dwarf planets of the solar system

The International Astronomical Union defines a planet as being in orbit around the sun, has enough gravity to pull its mass into a rounded shape (hydrostatic equilibrium), and has cleared its orbit of other, smaller objects. This last criterion is the point at which planets and dwarf planets differ. A planet's gravity either attracts or pushes away the smaller bodies that would otherwise intersect its orbit; the gravity of a dwarf planet is not sufficient to make this happen.  [Meet the Dwarf Planets of the Solar System]

Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status in 2006, joining Eris, Haumea, Makemake and Ceres.
Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status in 2006, joining Eris, Haumea, Makemake and Ceres.
Credit: Karl Tate, SPACE.com contributor

As of 2014, the IAU recognizes five named dwarf planets: Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. Other solar system bodies that are possibly dwarf planets include Sedna and Quaoar, small worlds far beyond Pluto's orbit, and 2012 VP113, an object that is thought to have one of the most distant orbits found beyond the known edge of our solar system. According to NASA, scientists think that there may be more than a hundred dwarf planets awaiting discovery.

However, the debate over the status of dwarf planets, particularly Pluto, remains a hot topic, and one that NASA’s New Horizons probe may inadvertently feed this summer.

The primary concern stems from the requirement for a planet to clear out its local neighborhood.

"In no other branch of science am I familiar with something that absurd," New Horizons principle investigator Alan Stern told Space.com in 2011. "A river is a river, independent of whether there are other rivers nearby. In science, we call things what they are based on their attributes, not what they're next to."

Stern challenged popular astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson to participate in a debate on Pluto’s planetary status last year, but Tyson turned down the invitation, having participated in the scientific conference termed the Great Planet Debate in 2008.

In late 2014, a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics webcast titled “What is a Planet?” brought in three experts to debate Pluto’s classification. At the conclusion, the audience in the room voted that the tiny favorite retain its planet title.

Is a dwarf planet a separate entity from a planet, or simply another classification? The question may not be settled in the near future.

The dwarf planet Ceres, also the largest asteroid in the solar system, is seen here in an amazing view from the Hubble Space Telescope. In March 2015, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is expected to enter orbit around Ceres to study the object like never before.
The dwarf planet Ceres, also the largest asteroid in the solar system, is seen here in an amazing view from the Hubble Space Telescope. In March 2015, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is expected to enter orbit around Ceres to study the object like never before.
Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute), L. McFadden (University of Maryland)

Ceres

Ceres is the earliest-known and smallest of the current category of dwarf planets. Ceres was discovered in 1801 by the Sicilian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, based on the prediction that the gap between Mars and Jupiter contained a missing planet. It is only 590 miles (950 km) in diameter and has a mass of just 0.015 percent that of Earth.

In fact, Ceres is so small that it is classified as both a dwarf planet and an asteroid, and is often named in scientific literature as one of the largest asteroids in the solar system. Although it makes up approximately a fourth of the mass of the asteroid belt, it is still 14 less massive than Pluto.

Unlike its asteroid neighbors, Ceres has a nearly round body. The rocky dwarf planet may have water ice beneath its crust. In 2014, The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory detected water vapor spewing from two regions on Ceres.

NASA's unmanned Dawn mission will perform an exploration of Ceres after it arrives at the asteroid/dwarf planet in March 2015.

Pluto

Pluto is the most well-known of the dwarf planets. Since its discovery in 1930 and until 2006, it had been classified as the ninth planet from the sun. Pluto's orbit was so erratic, however, that at times it was closer to the sun than the eighth planet, Neptune. In 2006, with the discovery of several other rocky bodies similar in size or larger than Pluto, the IAU decided to re-classify Pluto as a dwarf planet.

This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003.
This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute)

Despite its small size — 0.2 percent the mass of Earth and only 10 percent the mass of Earth's moon — Pluto's gravity is enough to capture five moons of its own. The pairing between Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, is known as a binary system, because both objects are orbiting around a central point which is not within the mass of Pluto.

NASA’s New Horizons mission, set to arrive at the Pluto-Charon system in the summer of 2015, will be the first spacecraft to study the most famous dwarf planet. The spacecraft woke up from its nine-year hibernation in the winter of 2014 and began studying the system from a distance.

Eris

When it was first discovered, Eris was thought to be the largest of the dwarf planets, with a mass 27 percent larger than that of Pluto and a diameter of approximately 1,400 to 1,500 miles (2,300 to 2,400 km). It was the discovery of Eris that prompted the IAU to reconsider the definition of a planet. Further observation went on to suggest that the dwarf planet is slightly smaller than its neighbor.

The orbit of Eris is very erratic, crossing that of Pluto and nearly intersecting the orbit of Neptune, but is still more than three times larger than Pluto’s orbit. It takes 557 years for Eris to orbit the sun. At its furthest point from the sun, a point that is also called its aphelion, Eris and its satellite travel far beyond the Kuiper belt.

An early artist's interpretation of the dwarf planet Makemake beyond Pluto.
An early artist's interpretation of the dwarf planet Makemake beyond Pluto.
Credit: NASA

Haumea and Makemake

Haumea and Makemake are the most recently named dwarf planets in the solar system.

Haumea is unique because of its ellipsoid shape, only just meeting the hydrostatic equilibrium criteria for dwarf planet status. The elongated shape of the dwarf planet is due to its rapid rotational spin, not a lack of mass, which is about one-third that of Pluto. The cigar-shaped dwarf planet rotates on its axis every four hours, likely a result of a collision. The odd object also hosts a red spot and a layer of crystalline ice. Finally, Haumea is the only object in the Kuiper belt other than Pluto known to host more than one moon.

Makemake is also unique among the known dwarf planets, being the only one of those discovered so far to lack a satellite. This lack makes it more difficult to measure the mass of the dwarf planet, though its diameter is known to be about two-thirds that of Pluto. Makemake is also of value to the astronomical community, as it is another reason for the reconsideration of the definition of a planet. Its comparable mass and diameter to Pluto would grant it planet status if Pluto wasn't also stripped of that title.

Dwarf planets as 'plutoids'

Pluto, Eris, Haumea and Makemake are all known as "plutoids," unlike the asteroidal dwarf planetoid Ceres. A plutoid is a dwarf planet with an orbit outside that of Neptune. Plutoids are sometimes also referred to as "ice dwarfs" due to their diminutive size and cold surface temperatures.

The outer planets show evidence of interaction with plutoids. Triton, the largest moon of Neptune, is likely a captured plutoid, and it is even possible that the odd tilt of Uranus on its axis is due to a collision with a plutoid. Similarly to dwarf planets, there are potentially hundreds of plutoid objects in the solar system that have yet to be given official status.

RELATED: See our overview of Solar System Facts. Also, learn more about the Solar System Planets.

Additional reporting by Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com Contributor

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