Tag Archives: dwarf planet

Discordant Dwarfs and Bad Apples

After mentioning Ceres, and since we mostly know Pluto, it seemed only fair to do a quick swing by Eris. Especially since we’re still in apple time.

 

Eris was the Greek goddess of discord and strife.

 

The most famous myth involving Eris is how she sort of started the Trojan War.

 

In a classic fairy tale setup, most of the pantheon had been invited to a wedding, but she was left out since she was a known troublemaker.

 

So of course she crashed to make trouble. She tossed in a golden apple engraved with to the fairest–all the other goddesses started to bicker over which of them deserved it.

 

Zeus (king of the gods and possibly of bad ideas as well) decided that the handsomest man in the world would be the best judge. So Paris, prince of Troy, was given the job. It was down to three powerful goddesses, all of whom stripped and when that failed, tried bribery. Hera offered him political power, Athena prowess in battle, and Aphrodite the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. (Ignoring the fact that said agreed upon beauty was married.)

 

Ruben’s Judgment of Paris

 In the famous ‘Judgement of Paris’ Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite and ran off with Helen. Helen’s husband and allies went to war with Troy, and the rest is a couple epics long. Per most classical mythology, it ends poorly for nearly everyone.

 

The dwarf planet that came to be called Eris was discovered in 2005 from photographs taken two years earlier. It seems to be more massive than Pluto, about 1/4 the mass of Earth. They’re not sure yet if it is slightly larger than Pluto or denser.

 

It’s a little odd that all of the planets have the Roman version of names, and here Eris is the odd planet out with the Greek version.

 

It seems like a planet named after strife should be one big enough to have the gravitational pull to clear its orbit and be considered a full planet.

 

There’s a certain appropriateness in giving the name to a dwarf planet, given the discord their designation, discovery and naming seem to sew in the astronomical community.

 

The team that discovered the object known as Eris and the one called Makemake announced their discoveries earlier than planned, after another team announced the discovery of a third object they’d been tracking. (The one now called Haumea.)

 

Haumea became a source of bickering, Caltech said they saw it first, the Spanish team announced it first. Caltech had found someone accessing their data  days before the announcement and accused the Spanish team of using Caltech’s data without permission. The Spanish team accused Caltech of politically interfering with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) when they officially recognized Caltech’s suggested name over the Spanish team’s suggested name.

 

The official reason was that the Spanish team suggested Ataecina, who was an underworld goddess. They thought it was a good way of honoring their Iberian background, and as an underworld goddess it fit nicely with Pluto. (Nice sounding name too…)

 

The IAC argued that the names of underground deities could only be used for planets in a similar orbit to Pluto, so went with Caltech’s proposed Hawaiian goddess, Haumea. She was the goddess of the island of Hawai’i, fertility and childbirth, and fit the guidelines that Kuiper belt objects are supposed to be named after creation deities.

 

Of course, with so many mythologies to choose from, it seems odd they couldn’t just pick a neutral one, shelve those names for the next time, and move on.

 

Golden apples anyone?

                     

Contentious Haumea is a tiny dwarf planet beyond Neptune. It’s has only 1/3 the mass of Pluto and is oddly elongated, but both teams agreed that it is big enough to have its own gravity.

 

Shadowed by the infighting, slightly larger and rounder (2/3 the mass of Pluto) Makemake was named after the creator god of the Rapa Nui.

 

The birdman cult which worshiped him was suppressed when Christian missionaries came to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) so not much is known about their practices or Makemake, beyond that he created humanity.

 

Okay, who has a good mnemonic to remember all these new guys and their order?

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A Harvest Tangent

 The other day someone mentioned the thirteen planets, and it gave me pause, since I thought there were less than when I was little, not more.

 

Oops. I didn’t realize all the dwarf planets had been named. Obviously I knew Pluto, and Eris sounded familiar, Ceres I thought was a large asteroid, and I didn’t remember Haumea or Makemake. I thought it was a good time of year to take a quick look at Ceres.

 

Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and motherhood. She’s essentially the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter. Linguists aren’t sure where the name Ceres comes from, one theory is that it shares a lost indo-European root with create, kernel, increase, corn, etc. We get the word cereal from her name.

 

 She was credited with discovering wheat (spelt) and with yoking oxen for plowing. Her main festival was held in spring, but now fall seems the appropriate time to visit the myths. The Romans saw her as connected to the line between life and death. She had a personal connection to the dead once the Romans nabbed Persephone from the Greeks and named her Proserpina.

 

In 1801 a newly discovered planet was named after her. It was first discovered on January 1, observed two dozen times, lost, then finally independently confirmed on December 31rst. (Perhaps Janus would have been a better name…) It has fluctuated between asteroid and planet and now seems to be considered both a dwarf planet and an asteroid.

 

Ceres is the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system. It lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Even at its brightest it is too dim to see with the naked eye except in the darkest, clearest skies. When he first saw it, its discoverer wasn’t sure if it was a comet or planet, but it seemed to be too stable for a comet.

 

Ceres is about 600 miles in diameter, about the size of Texas.

 

 I wasn’t sure if the dwarf planet designation was all about size.

 

There seems to be a little more to it than that. Planet is a cultural and not a scientific designation, so the whole thing is sort of vague. The 2006 dwarf planet description is basically a spherical object in a more or less regular orbit around the sun that isn’t large enough for its gravity to have cleared its orbit of most other celestial bodies. (So too small to enlarge itself by eating all its neighbors.)

 

What’s cool is in March 2015 (scary how not far away that is) NASA’s Dawn mission will be studying the structure of Ceres and a nearby asteroid, Vesta, to see how they were formed. They think these small bodies have altered less in the past 4.6 billion years than the planets have, since Jupiter’s gravity both protects them and stopped them from forming a planet.

 

 

chemistry http://periodictable.com/Elements/058/index.html

Photograph of Cerium from Theo Gray’s wonderful book on the elements.

 The element cerium (58) was discovered in 1803, and named after the recently discovered planet.

 

It is the most common (and least expensive) of the rare earth elements. It’s nearly as common as copper, the rare earth elements are named less for their scarcity than for the trouble it takes to isolate them. Cerium is a soft silvery metal that can catch fire when it is struck. The whole piece won’t burn, but any bits knocked off burn as they’re made. So cerium is used in lighter flints and in special effects where lots of sparks are needed.

 

At high temperatures (65-80 degrees Celsius) it can ignite spontaneously in air. Its fumes are toxic and you can’t douse it with water since cerium will react with water ot product hydrogen gas. So as much fun as it sounds like to play with, it sounds like an element to avoid unless you have the training.

 

The Greeks sometimes call cerium dimitrio, after Demeter.

 

Okay, so it’s a dwarf planet and a rare earth element named after her second hand, but still not bad for a goddess mostly defunct for centuries!

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