Our solar system could be about to acquire a new planet – a dwarf planet, to be precise – after astronomers examined a hulking space rock in an asteroid belt.
Hygeia is pretty big for an asteroid. At 280 miles across, it’s far bigger than the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs, but it would become the smallest dwarf planet in the solar system.
It would take the crown from Ceres, 550 miles across, which is found in the same asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The findings came after an international team examined Hygeia using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).
A dwarf planet, according to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), is a celestial object orbiting a star that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity but does not have the gravitational dominance to clear the area around its orbit by consuming or slinging away smaller objects in its path.
The most famous example is Pluto, which was downgraded to a dwarf planet in 2006 after the IAU changed the requirements that defined a planet.
Along with Ceres and Pluto, there are three other known dwarf planets in the solar system – Haumea, Makemake and Eris. Ceres and Hygiea hail from the asteroid belt, sharing the vast space with 7,000 other members, including a large asteroid called Vesta.
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