Webb Observes 3 Dwarf Planets in the Kuiper Belt

Sedna Artist's Concept

On this artist’s visualization, the newly found planet-like object, dubbed ‘Sedna,’ is proven the place it resides on the outer edges of the identified photo voltaic system. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Utilizing the James Webb Area Telescope, astronomers noticed three dwarf planets within the Kuiper Belt, discovering mild hydrocarbons and sophisticated molecules. These findings improve our understanding of objects within the outer Photo voltaic System and spotlight the JWST’s capabilities in area exploration.

The Kuiper Belt, the huge area on the fringe of our Photo voltaic System populated by numerous icy objects, is a treasure trove of scientific discoveries. The detection and characterization of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), typically known as Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), has led to a brand new understanding of the historical past of the Photo voltaic System. The disposition of KBOs is an indicator of gravitational currents which have formed the Photo voltaic System and reveal a dynamic historical past of planetary migrations. Because the late twentieth century, scientists have been desperate to get a more in-depth have a look at KBOs to study extra about their orbits and composition.

The James Webb Area Telescope’s Observations

Learning our bodies within the outer Photo voltaic System is without doubt one of the many goals of the James Webb Area Telescope (JWST). Utilizing knowledge obtained by Webb’s Close to-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec), a global workforce of astronomers noticed three dwarf planets within the Kuiper Belt: Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar. These observations revealed a number of attention-grabbing issues about their respective orbits and composition, together with mild hydrocarbons and sophisticated natural molecules believed to be the product of methane irradiation.

The analysis was led by Joshua Emery, a Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Sciences at Northern Arizona College. He was joined by researchers from NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Middle (GSFC), the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (Université Paris-Saclay), the Pinhead Institute, the Florida Area Institute (College of Central Florida), the Lowell Observatory, the Southwest Analysis Institute (SwRI), the Area Telescope Science Institute (STScI), American College. and Cornell College. A preprint of their paper has appeared on-line and is being reviewed for publication by Icarus.

Arrokoth New Horizons

Since its final flyby of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth, the New Horizons mission has been exploring objects within the Kuiper Belt and performing heliospheric and astrophysical observations. Credit score: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI//Roman Tkachenko

Historical past of Kuiper Belt Exploration

Regardless of all the advances in astronomy and robotic explorers, what we all know in regards to the Trans-Neptunian Area and the Kuiper Belt remains to be restricted. Thus far, the one mission to review Uranus, Neptune, and their main satellites was the Voyager 2 mission, which flew previous these ice giants in 1986 and 1989, respectively. Furthermore, the New Horizons mission was the primary spacecraft to review Pluto and its satellites (in July 2015) and the one one to come across an object within the Kuiper Belt, which occurred on January 1st, 2019, when it flew previous the KBO generally known as Arrokoth.

Astronomers’ Expectations from JWST

This is without doubt one of the many the explanation why astronomers have eagerly awaited the launch of the JWST. Along with finding out exoplanets and the earliest galaxies within the Universe, its highly effective infrared imaging capabilities have additionally been turned towards our yard, revealing new photos of Mars, Jupiter, and its largest satellites. For his or her research, Emery and his colleagues consulted near-infrared knowledge obtained by Webb of three planetoids within the Kuiper Belt – Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar. These our bodies are about 1,000 km (620 mi) in diameter, which locations them throughout the IAU designation for Dwarf Planets.

Insights on Dwarf Planets

As Emery advised Universe At present by way of electronic mail, these our bodies are particularly attention-grabbing to astronomers due to their dimension, orbits, and compositions. Different Trans-Neptunian our bodies – like Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake – have all retained unstable ices on their surfaces (nitrogen, methane, and so forth.). The one exception is Haumea, which misplaced its volatiles in a big influence (apparently). As Emery mentioned, they wished to see if Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar have related volatiles on their surfaces as effectively:

“Earlier work has proven that they can. Whereas all being roughly related sizes, their orbits are distinct. Sedna is an internal Oort Cloud object with a perihelion of 76 AU and aphelion of practically 1,000 AU, Gonggong is in a really elliptical orbit additionally, with perihelion of 33 AU and aphelion ~100 AU, and Quaoar is in a comparatively round orbit close to 43 AU. These orbits place the our bodies in several temperature regimes and totally different irradiation environments (Sedna, for example, spends most of its time exterior the Solar’s heliosphere). We wished to analyze how these totally different orbits may have an effect on the surfaces. There are additionally different attention-grabbing ices and sophisticated organics on the surfaces.”


Photos from one of many two PRISM grating observations of Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar. Credit score: Emery, J.P. et al. (2023)

Utilizing knowledge from Webb’s NIRSpec instrument, the workforce noticed all three our bodies in low-resolution prism mode at wavelengths spanning 0.7 to five.2 micrometers (µm) – putting all of them within the near-infrared spectrum. Extra observations had been made from Quaoar from 0.97 to three.16 ?m utilizing medium-resolution gratings at ten instances the spectral decision. The ensuing spectra revealed some attention-grabbing issues about these TNOs and the floor compositions, mentioned Emery:

“We discovered ample ethane (C2H6) on all three our bodies, most prominently on Sedna. Sedna additionally exhibits acetylene (C2H2) and ethylene (C2H4). The abundances correlate with the orbit (most on Sedna, much less on Gonggong, least on Quaoar), which is in keeping with relative temperatures and irradiation environments. These molecules are direct irradiation merchandise of methane (CH4). If ethane (or the others) had been on the surfaces for a very long time, they’d have been transformed to much more complicated molecules by irradiation. Since we nonetheless see them, we suspect that methane (CH4) have to be resupplied to the surfaces pretty often.”

These findings are in keeping with these introduced in a pair of latest research led by Dr. Will Grundy, an astronomer with the Lowell Observatory and a co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission, and Chris Glein, a planetary scientist and geochemist on the SwRI. For each research, Grundy, Glien, and their colleagues measured deuterium/hydrogen (D/H) ratios in methane on Eris and Makemake and concluded that the methane was not primordial. As an alternative, they argue that the ratios outcome from methane being processed of their interiors and delivered to the floor.

“We advise the identical could also be true for Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar,” mentioned Emery. “We additionally see that the spectra of Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar are distinct from these of smaller KBOs. There have been talks at two latest conferences that confirmed JWST knowledge of smaller KBOs cluster into three teams, none of which appear like Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar. That result’s in keeping with our three bigger our bodies having a special geothermal historical past.”

Largest TNO Size Comparison

Comparability between the eight largest TNOs with Earth (all to scale). Credit score: NASA/Lexicon

Implications of the Findings

These findings may have important implications for the research of KBOs, TNOs, and different objects within the outer Photo voltaic System. This contains new perception into the formation of objects past the Frost Line in planetary techniques, which refers back to the line past which unstable compounds will freeze stable. In our Photo voltaic System, the Trans-Neptunian area corresponds to the nitrogen line, the place our bodies will retain giant quantities of volatiles with very low freezing factors (i.e., nitrogen, methane, and ammonia). These findings, mentioned Emery, additionally display what kind of evolutionary processes are at work for our bodies on this area:

“The first implication could also be discovering the dimensions at which KBOs have turn out to be heat sufficient for inside reprocessing of primordial ices, maybe even differentiation. We must also be capable of use these spectra to higher perceive irradiation processing of floor ices within the outer Photo voltaic System. And future research may also be capable of look in additional element at unstable stability and the chance for atmospheres on these our bodies over any elements of their orbits.”

This research’s outcomes additionally showcase the skills of the JWST, which has confirmed its price many instances because it grew to become operational early final yr. Additionally they remind us that along with enabling new visions and breakthroughs of distant planets, galaxies, and the large-scale construction of the Universe, Webb can even reveal issues about our little nook of the cosmos.

“The JWST knowledge are implausible,” added Emery. “They enabled us to get spectra at longer wavelengths than we are able to from the bottom, which enabled the detection of those ices. Typically, when observing in a brand new wavelength vary, the preliminary knowledge might be fairly poor high quality. JWST not solely opened up a brand new wavelength vary but additionally offered fantastically high-quality knowledge which might be delicate to a set of supplies on the surfaces within the outer Photo voltaic System.”

Tailored from an article initially revealed on Universe At present.

Reference: “A Story of three Dwarf Planets: Ices and Organics on Sedna, Gonggong, and Quaoar from JWST Spectroscopy” by J.P. Emery, I. Wong, R. Brunetto, J.C. Cook dinner, N. Pinilla-Alonso, J.A. Stansberry, B.J. Holler, W.M. Grundy, S. Protopapa, A.C. Souza-Feliciano, E. Fernández-Valenzuela, J.I. Lunine and D.C. Hines, 26 September 2023, Astrophysics > Earth and Planetary Astrophysics.


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