Pluto may have found a new friend! On October 11th, 2016, scientists announced the discovery of a new planet orbiting around our sun, just past Pluto in the Kuiper belt. 2014 UZ224, as it’s currently named, is roughly the size of the state of Iowa (or half the size of Pluto). This “trans-Neptunian” object was discovered by University of Michigan astrophysicist David Gerdes and his team of undergraduate students.
Gerdes is part of an international team working on the “Dark Energy Survey”, which aims to map the universe and shine some light onto mysteries and questions such as why the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. This Survey requires a “Dark Energy Camera”, which is located in Chile, and Gerde gave his undergrad students access to this camera and challenged them to pinpoint objects within our solar system through a galaxy map the Dark Energy Camera produced.
The students shocked Gerde when they returned to him with something that astronomers hadn’t seen before, a new Dwarf Planet in our solar system! It’s taken about 2 years to confirm the discovery and map 2014 UZ224’s orbit, seeing as it takes 1,000 Earth years to make a full orbit around the Sun, but as of Wednesday it has been confirmed.
Although confirmed to be in our Solar System, Gerde has been unable to officially classify the object. During an interview, Gerdes told NPR that some astronomers may dispute 2014 UZ224’s categorization as a dwarf, because it is quite smaller than others in this category. But for now, this unofficial classification will remain until the International Astronomical Union (IAU) confirms.
P.S. Gerdes and his team are onto the next project and are now looking for the mysterious Planet Nine that was speculated about in the Astronomical Journal earlier this year.