Mysterious and Well-Preserved Oort Cloud Object Heading Into Our Solar System

What if we could journey to the outer edge of the Solar System – beyond the familiar rocky planets and the gas giants, past the orbits of asteroids and comets – one thousand times further still – to the spherical shell of icy particles that enshrouds the Solar System. This shell, more commonly known as the Oort cloud, is believed to be a remnant of the early Solar System.

Imagine what astronomers could learn about the early Solar System by sending a probe to the Oort cloud! Unfortunately 1-2 light years is more than a little beyond our reach. But we’re not entirely out of luck. 2010 WG9 – a trans-Neptunian object — is actually an Oort Cloud object in disguise. It has been kicked out of its orbit, and is heading closer towards us so we can get an unprecedented look.

But it gets even better! 2010 WG9 won’t get close to the Sun, meaning that its icy surface will remain well-preserved. Dr. David Rabinowitz, lead author of a paper about the ongoing observations of this object told Universe Today, “This is one of the Holy Grails of Planetary Science – to observe an unaltered planetesimal left over from the time of Solar System formation.”

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Peer Pressure keeps young planets growing

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Why don’t young planets get pushed into their companion stars before they have a chance to grow? Astronomers believe that planets form in a disk of gas and dust surrounding a young star. The first step towards planet formation is the planetesimal – a small rocky body with radius of roughly 1–10 km. As the dust condenses into planetesimals during the first few million years of a star’s life, larger rocks begin to emerge that grow much more rapidly than the rest. These bodies, termed oligarchs, are on their way to young planethood, using their gravitational pull to attract and pack on more planetesimals.

In addition to providing a means for growth, planetesimals can also push an oligarch towards its doom in the central star. A lone oligarch orbiting through the disk of planetesimals clears a path much like a stick being dragged through sand. The planetesimals on either side of the trench press on the oligarch, and as the outer ring has more mass, the planetesimals deliver a net inward push.

In the past, magnetic fields, turbulence and thermodynamics have been used to explain how rocky planets are prevented from falling into their stars. However, a new study by Bromley and Kenyon say that the wake patterns created by multiple oligarchs circling a star are enough to prevent structures from forming in the planetesimal disk that would push the young planets in.

Once the oligarchs account for about half of the material in the disk, a few tens of millions of years after the birth of the star, they begin making even more material gains by combining with one another. Rather than hollowing out a series of trenches, the oligarchs are now randomly scrawling in the planetesimal “sand”, which also prevents the planetesimals from settling into patterns that would feed the oligarchs to the star.
New views of giant asteroid Vesta revealed

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(This image released Monday, Dec. 5, 2011, by the Dawn spacecraft shows the surface of the massive asteroid Vesta. Credit: AP Photo/NASA)

“New views of the massive asteroid Vesta reveal it is more like a planet than an asteroid, scientists said Monday.”

“Since slipping into orbit around Vesta in July, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has beamed back stunning images of the second largest object residing in the asteroid belt.”

“Vesta’s rugged surface is unique compared to the solar system’s much smaller and lightweight asteroids. Impact craters dot Vesta’s surface along with grooves, troughs and a variety of minerals.”

“‘Vesta is unlike any other asteroid,’ said mission co-scientist Vishnu Reddy of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany. The new findings were presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.”

2010 WG9 & The Oort Cloud

Somewhere beyond the orbit of Neptune is a treasure-trove just waiting to be opened – and I’m not talking about Pluto. Astronomers have identified the trans-Neptunian object 2010 WG9; it’s certainly an awesome find. Dr. David Rabinowitz believes 2010 WG9 isn’t any regular trans-Neptunian object, but rather an object from the Oort cloud that has ventured closer to home.

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Phoebe was on her way to becoming a planet

NASA’s Cassini probe has recently revealed that Saturn’s moon Phoebe may be more like a planet than previously expected. The moon is likely a planetesimal – a body that evolved quickly and actively during the early life of the solar system; that has chemical, geological, and geophysical properties similar to planets; and that may have evolved into a planet, had its development not stalled out.

(Image from Science Daily)

Ice Volcanoes May Have Erased Craters on Dwarf Planet Ceres

Ice volcanoes on Ceres might help solve the mystery of why large craters seem to be missing on the dwarf planet’s surface, a new study shows.

With a diameter of about 585 miles (940 kilometers), Ceres is largest member of the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Large portions of Ceres’ surface are “saturated” in craters that are about 37 miles (60 kilometers) wide or smaller, likely created by meteorites crashing into the dwarf planet’s surface, according to the new study. However, the largest confirmed impact crater on Ceres is only about 175 miles wide (280 km). 

Prior work that analyzed pockmarked Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, suggested that Ceres should have at least six to seven craters that are 250 miles (400 km) in diameter or larger. Similarly, earlier research that modeled the evolution of planets from planetesimals — the building blocks of planets — suggested that 10 to 15 craters greater than 250 miles (400 km) wide should have formed on Ceres during its lifetime of about 4.55 billion years. [The Dwarf Planet Ceres: Amazing Photos]

Astronomers have previously found that the largest craters on many asteroids are often as large as the asteroids themselves; for instance, the largest crater on 325-mile-wide (525 km) Vesta is about 310 miles (500 km) across. As such, the conspicuous absence of large craters on Ceres was a mystery.

To help solve the puzzle of Ceres’ missing craters, the researchers used data from the NASA Dawn mission, which began orbiting Ceres in April 2015. They used the data to model how the asteroid (which is actually large enough to be considered a dwarf planet) might have evolved over time. The researchers ran about 1,000 computer simulations of collisions that Ceres might have experienced over its lifetime, assuming that it held its current position in the asteroid belt over the past 4.55 billion years, according to the paper. (The best current estimate for the age of the solar system is 4.56 billion years, and the researchers estimated that Ceres formed within 1 million to 10 million years after the solar system was born.)

Unexpectedly, the scientists found that Ceres not only lacks giant craters, but is also missing craters that are only slightly smaller. Their simulations predicted that Ceres should have 90 to 180 craters that are each more than about 65 miles (100 km) wide, but Ceres appears to only have about 40 such craters. In addition, the simulations predicted that Ceres should have 40 to 70 craters that are each more than about 95 miles (150 km) across, but Ceres has only about 20 such craters. 

All in all, the models predicted that the chances of Ceres having so few craters was less than 2 percent.

“The lack of large craters was an absolute surprise. This is in stark contrast with other asteroids — for example, Vesta,” study lead author Simone Marchi, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told “Thus, it points to something special about Ceres, something that we could not have guessed.”

The researchers suggested that many large craters on Ceres have been obliterated beyond recognition. Researchers had several potential explanations for how this could have happened; for instance, the surface of Ceres may have simply relaxed over time and become less crinkly. 

Another explanation may be ice volcanoes

Whereas regular volcanoes on Earth erupt molten rock, ice volcanoes, which are also known as cryovolcanoes, are thought to spew out plumes of water-ice and other frozen molecules. Recent work suggests that Ceres may consist of up to 25 percent water- ice by mass (in its interior), and so may experience cryovolcanic activity.

The scientists proposed that cryovolcanic eruptions might have dramatically transformed the surface of Ceres, erasing many craters. For instance, the researchers found faded evidence of one or possibly two craters about 500 miles (800 km) in diameter.

Large craters would have mostly formed on Ceres early in its history, when there were more big rocks careening around the solar system. Over time, most of these rocks would have collided with other objects and gotten smashed to bits, leading to smaller and smaller craters on Ceres. Cryovolcanism may have been more common on Ceres during its earlier years, when its interior was warmer, and the volcanoes may have eliminated many of the larger craters. As cryovolcanism on Ceres died down, more and more craters would have survived, leaving behind mostly smaller ones, Marchi said.

“We will try to nail down what the obliteration process was,” Marchi said. “There [may even be] other processes that we have not thought of.”

The scientists detailed their findings online July 26 in the journal Nature Communications.

Follow Charles Q. Choi on Twitter @cqchoi. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

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