NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope just found a small, dark moon orbiting Makemake, which is the second brightest icy dwarf planet in our system after Pluto in the Kulper Belt. Some of our readers might know NASA as an acronym for Never A Straight Answer, a term coined by former NATO allied supreme commander Robert Dean, but that doesn’t mean everything the agency reveals to the public is misinformation (though an unfortunately large proportion of it probably is).
According to the NASA statement, with comments from NASA scientists Alex Parker and Marc Buie:
Makemake is in the class of rare Pluto-like objects, so finding a companion is important,” Parker said. “The discovery of this moon has given us an opportunity to study Makemake in far greater detail than we ever would have been able to without the companion.”
Finding this moon only increases the parallels between Pluto and Makemake. Both objects are already known to be covered in frozen methane. As was done with Pluto, further study of the satellite will easily reveal the density of Makemake, a key result that will indicate if the bulk compositions of Pluto and Makemake are also similar. “This new discovery opens a new chapter in comparative planetology in the outer solar system,” said team leader Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.
This discovery promises to help scientists answer many questions about the icy planet. Through study of MK 2’s orbit around Makemake, scientists should not only be able to determine how the moon formed, but also learn more about the mass, composition, and density of the planet itself, comparing it to other icy planets like Pluto, Eris, and Haumea.
It has already helped them to solve one long-standing mystery about the small planet, as National Geographic reports:
When scientists first observed the whirling Makemake, they noted that it was continually bright, meaning that its surface is probably uniformly covered in bright, reflective ices. But heat signatures from the faraway planet were slightly varied, suggesting that at least one warm, dark patch might be present on Makemake’s surface. Years of observations failed to reconcile the two data sets, as a dark patch never showed up in observations.
“Well, imagine that the dark material isn’t on Makemake’s surface … it’s in orbit!” Parker said. “If the moon is very dark, it accounts for most previous thermal measurements!”
Many questions remain to be answered, but this discovery promises to offer scientists plenty of exciting new information to work with.