Makemake is a dwarf planet residing in the vast expanse of the Kuiper Belt, an area of the solar system beyond Neptune filled with icy bodies and remnants from its formation.
Named after the Rapanui fertility god, it holds the distinction of being the third-largest known dwarf planet, discovered in 2005 at the Palomar Observatory.
Its status within the solar neighborhood brings curiosity and interest, as it represents a link to understanding the outer regions of our solar system.
Despite its size, roughly two-thirds that of the dwarf planet Pluto and with a radius of about 444 miles, Makemake’s conditions are inhospitable to support known forms of life.
The surface temperature is exceptionally low, around 40 K (−230 °C), creating an environment where methane, ethane, and possibly nitrogen ice cover the surface. This frigid temperature, paired with its distance from the Sun and lack of atmosphere, delineates a stark contrast from the life-supporting warmth of Earth.
Scientific observations of Makemake have unveiled that it is a reflective object, suggesting a high-ice content exterior, and possesses one known satellite.
Discovery and Naming
In 2005, astronomers at the Palomar Observatory made a significant discovery that expanded our understanding of the solar system. This section delves into the initial detection of the dwarf planet and the cultural influence that inspired its naming.
The dwarf planet known as Makemake was first observed by a team of astronomers led by Mike Brown on March 31, 2005. It was at the Palomar Observatory, situated in San Diego County, California, where the celestial body was identified.
Upon discovery, Makemake held the provisional designation 2005 FY9, often referred to by the discovery team as “Easterbunny” due to its close proximity to the Easter holiday.
Influence of Mythology
Makemake receives its name from the Rapa Nui mythology of Easter Island—a Polynesian island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. In this mythology, Makemake is the chief deity and represents the god of fertility.
This mythological attribution is befitting, as the international astronomical community, through the International Astronomical Union (IAU), seeks to honor different cultures in the naming of celestial bodies.
The name reflects both the Polynesian and specifically the Rapa Nui heritage, underscoring the interconnectedness of human cultures with the cosmos.
Makemake exhibits intriguing physical characteristics that distinguish it as one of the more compelling bodies in the Kuiper Belt. It presents a unique blend of features in terms of size, surface composition, and atmosphere.
Size and Shape
Makemake has a roughly round shape, which is characteristic of a dwarf planet. It has a radius of approximately 715 kilometers (444 miles), which is about 1/9 the radius of Earth. The diameter of Makemake is estimated to be about 1,430 kilometers.
This makes it the second-largest known dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt. Its rotation period is quite swift, with a day lasting about 22.5 hours.
Surface and Composition
The surface of Makemake is reddish-brown due to the presence of tholins, complex organic molecules that form when ultraviolet sunlight hits a mixture of methane and other gases. Methane, in particular, appears to coat the surface, possibly as ice or in pellet form about one-centimeter across.
Also, the presence of frozen ethane and frozen nitrogen has been indicated by observational data, reflecting the planet’s extremely low temperature and volatile surface activity.
Makemake’s albedo, a measure of how reflective its surface is, suggests that it has a relatively high reflective surface compared to other celestial bodies in the Kuiper Belt.
The atmosphere of Makemake, if it exists, is extremely thin and would consist mostly of nitrogen, methane, and possibly ethane. Given its distance from the sun and its small size, the dwarf planet is unlikely to retain a significant atmosphere; any atmosphere it may have is likely to be transient and related to temperature changes during its orbit.
The gravity on Makemake, being a function of its size and mass, is weak compared to that of Earth, affecting the chances of retaining a substantial atmosphere.
Understanding the movement of Makemake requires a look at its position within the Solar System’s periphery and its orbital behavior, including its satellite.
Position in the Solar System
Makemake resides in the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond Neptune filled with many small celestial objects. It orbits the Sun at a significant distance, making it a classical Kuiper Belt object.
The dwarf planet’s rotation period is approximately 22.5 hours, indicative of a day slightly shorter than Earth’s. Makemake’s orbit remains stable over long periods, which places it far enough away from Neptune to avoid significant gravitational disruptions.
Orbital characteristics of Makemake:
- Orbit: Takes roughly 310 years to complete one orbit around the Sun.
- Distance from the Sun: This varies, with its farthest point, the aphelion, placing it even more distant from the Sun’s warmth and light.
- Class: Designated as a classical Kuiper Belt object due to its near-circular orbit lying just outside Neptune’s orbit.
Moons and Satellites
Makemake has a known moon, designated S/2015 (136472) 1, also nicknamed MK 2.
This satellite was discovered in 2015, and its discovery has provided valuable information about the Makemake system.
Key details about MK 2:
- Moon’s Diameter: Approximately 160 km (100 miles).
- Orbital Relationship: The presence of a satellite around Makemake aids in the determination of the dwarf planet’s mass and density.
This section has restricted its focus to the orbital dynamics of Makemake, exploring its position within the Solar System, specifically in the Kuiper Belt, as well as details related to its moon.
Exploration and Observation
Makemake’s exploration has been a telescopic endeavor, with pivotal discoveries made by Earth-bound observations and analyses led by teams such as that of Michael E. Brown. Despite the lack of direct space missions to this distant dwarf planet, future prospects for further exploration are contingent on technological advancements and scientific interest.
Telescopic Studies and Discoveries
Makemake, the dwarf planet, was discovered through telescopic observations.
On July 29, 2005, a team led by Michael E. Brown at the Palomar Observatory identified this celestial body as a member of the Kuiper Belt objects, which also contains other dwarf planets such as Pluto, Haumea, and Eris.
Makemake is particularly significant due to its status as one of the brightest known trans-Neptunian objects (TNO).
- The Hubble Space Telescope has been instrumental in studying Makemake. Utilizing the Wide Field Camera 3, Hubble provided valuable insights into the planet’s size, albedo, and composition.
- An occultation event studied by Hubble allowed for more precise calculations of Makemake’s size and reflectivity. Observations confirmed the presence of a moon, nicknamed MK2, which orbits Makemake.
Space Missions and Future Prospects
No space missions have explored Makemake yet.
However, it remains an intriguing target for future exploration due to its place within the larger context of the Kuiper Belt and dwarf planets like Ceres in the asteroid belt.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which famously did a flyby mission of Pluto, has set a precedent for the exploration of Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), raising hopes for future missions to similar celestial objects like Makemake.
Future prospects for exploring Makemake depend on funding, scientific priorities, and the evolving capabilities of space exploration technology.