The History of Planet Makemake

The history of Planet Makemake takes us on a journey exploring the various aspects of this intriguing celestial body.

1/29/20248 min read

1. Introduction

Makemake, named after the creation deity of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, is a distant dwarf planet located in the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond Neptune. This work delves into the discovery and naming of Makemake, its physical characteristics including size, mass, surface composition, and atmosphere, as well as its orbit and rotation. Additionally, we delve into the fascinating moons of Makemake, the exploration and missions to study this distant world, and the significance of Makemake in our understanding of dwarf planets, Kuiper Belt objects, and the formation of our solar system.

2. Discovery of Makemake

Makemake was discovered on March 31, 2005, by a team of astronomers led by Michael E. Brown, Chad Trujillo, and David Rabinowitz. The discovery was made using the Hubble Space Telescope and it took several months of observations to confirm the existence of the dwarf planet. Makemake is one of the largest objects in the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond Neptune that is home to many icy bodies. Its discovery was significant as it provided more evidence for the existence of dwarf planets in our solar system.

2.1. Observations by Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope played a crucial role in the observations of Makemake. Using its powerful instruments, astronomers were able to study the reflection of sunlight off the surface of the dwarf planet. These observations revealed valuable information about Makemake's size, composition, and surface features. By analyzing the light spectrum, scientists determined that the surface of Makemake is rich in methane and nitrogen ice. The Hubble Space Telescope's observations helped shape our understanding of this distant world and its place in the solar system.

2.2. Naming of Makemake

The name "Makemake" was given to the newly discovered dwarf planet in July 2008. It is derived from the creation deity of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island. The name was chosen to honor the connection between the Rapa Nui culture and the exploration of the universe. The choice of name went through a series of approvals before it was officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Makemake's naming process demonstrates the importance of cultural diversity and the recognition of different civilizations' contributions to our understanding of the cosmos.

3. Physical Characteristics

The physical characteristics of Makemake provide valuable insights into the nature of this dwarf planet. Studying its size, mass, surface composition, and atmosphere helps scientists understand its unique properties within the solar system.

3.1. Size and Mass

Makemake is one of the largest known objects in the Kuiper Belt. It has an estimated diameter of around 870 miles (1400 kilometers). As for its mass, scientists estimate it to be approximately two-thirds the mass of Pluto. These figures make Makemake the second-largest known dwarf planet in terms of size and mass, highlighting its significance in the study of our celestial neighborhood.

3.2. Surface Composition

The surface composition of Makemake provides valuable clues about its formation and evolution. Observations suggest that its surface is predominantly composed of icy materials such as methane, ethane, and nitrogen. These frozen volatiles create a reflective surface that gives Makemake its high albedo. Additionally, spectral analysis indicates the presence of tholins, complex organic compounds formed by the interaction of sunlight with the methane in its atmosphere. Understanding these surface compositions helps scientists unravel the complex history and composition of Makemake.

3.3. Atmosphere

Despite being a dwarf planet, Makemake boasts a tenuous and intriguing atmosphere. Observations have revealed the presence of methane and ethane in its atmosphere, which indicates a complex chemistry at work. However, compared to Pluto or other dwarf planets with substantial atmospheres, Makemake's thin atmosphere poses challenges to detailed studies. Further exploration and observation are required to shed more light on the characteristics and behavior of its atmosphere.

4. Orbit and Rotation

The orbit and rotation of Makemake play a crucial role in understanding its place in the solar system. Makemake is located at a distance of approximately 52 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, making it one of the farthest known objects in our solar system. Its elliptical orbit takes Makemake on a journey around the Sun, with its closest approach being around 38 AU and its farthest point reaching about 65 AU. This vast distance gives Makemake a unique position in the outer reaches of the solar system.

4.1. Distance from the Sun

Makemake's distance from the Sun is quite remarkable. As mentioned earlier, it orbits at an average distance of about 52 AU, which means it is about 52 times farther from the Sun than Earth is. To put it into perspective, this places Makemake in the icy outer region of the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt. This distance has significant implications for the conditions on Makemake, including its temperature, level of sunlight, and the potential for any atmospheres or weather patterns.

4.2. Orbital Period

The orbital period of Makemake refers to the time it takes for the dwarf planet to complete one full orbit around the Sun. In the case of Makemake, its orbital period is approximately 309 Earth years. This incredibly long journey around the Sun means that a single year on Makemake is equivalent to more than three centuries on Earth. Such a prolonged orbit adds to the mystique and uniqueness of this distant world, making it a fascinating object of study for astronomers.

4.3. Axial Tilt and Seasons

Like Earth, Makemake experiences axial tilt, which results in changing seasons throughout its year. However, the axial tilt of Makemake is significantly more extreme than that of Earth. It tilts at an angle of about 29 degrees, compared to Earth's 23.5 degrees. This increased tilt leads to more pronounced seasonal variations on Makemake, with different regions experiencing long winters and summers. The axial tilt and resulting seasons play a crucial role in shaping the climate and overall conditions on this distant dwarf planet.

5. Moons of Makemake

The dwarf planet Makemake has been found to have moons orbiting around it. These moons were discovered through observations made by astronomers using advanced telescopes and imaging techniques. The presence of moons around Makemake provides valuable insights into the formation and dynamics of this distant world.

5.1. Discovery of Moons

The discovery of moons around Makemake was made by analyzing data from various telescopes and space missions. In 2015, astronomers detected the presence of a moon, which was named MK 2. Subsequent observations using advanced technology revealed the existence of a second moon called MK 1. The process of discovering these moons involved careful analysis of the dwarf planet's gravitational influence on nearby objects and tracking their movements over time.

5.2. Characteristics of Moons

Makemake's moons, MK 1 and MK 2, have distinct characteristics that have been studied by scientists. MK 1 has a smaller size compared to MK 2 and is estimated to be around 175 kilometers in diameter. MK 2, on the other hand, is larger with an estimated diameter of around 210 kilometers. These moons have irregular shapes and are likely composed of a mixture of rock and ice. Further research is needed to better understand their surface composition, geology, and other characteristics.

6. Exploration and Missions

Exploration and missions have played a crucial role in expanding our knowledge about Makemake. Scientists have been eager to explore this distant dwarf planet and gather valuable data. Through various space missions, we have been able to study its physical characteristics, such as its size, mass, and surface composition. Missions have also allowed us to examine Makemake's atmosphere and understand its unique features. These explorations have provided us with valuable insights into this enigmatic world and have opened up new avenues for further research and discovery.

6.1. New Horizons Flyby

One notable exploration of Makemake was carried out by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. In 2015, New Horizons made a flyby of Makemake, capturing detailed images and collecting data about this distant world. The mission provided us with high-resolution images of its surface, revealing its rugged terrain, craters, and other geological features. Scientists were also able to analyze the composition of its surface and gain valuable insights into the materials that make up Makemake. The New Horizons flyby significantly enhanced our understanding of this dwarf planet and sparked further interest in exploring other celestial bodies within the Kuiper Belt.

6.2. Future Exploration Plans

Exciting plans for future exploration of Makemake are already in motion. Scientists and space agencies are actively considering and proposing potential missions to gather more in-depth information about this mysterious dwarf planet. These future exploration plans aim to delve even deeper into Makemake's physical characteristics, including its surface composition, atmosphere, and potential moons. By studying Makemake further, scientists hope to uncover more about its origins and gain a better understanding of the formation and evolution of the solar system. These upcoming missions hold great promise in uncovering new insights and expanding our knowledge of this intriguing world beyond Neptune.

7. Significance of Makemake

Makemake holds great significance in the field of astronomy as one of the five recognized dwarf planets in our solar system. These dwarf planets, including Makemake, are vital in our understanding of the solar system's formation and its celestial bodies. The study of Makemake allows scientists to gain insights into the processes that occurred during the early stages of our solar system's evolution. By analyzing its characteristics and comparing them with other dwarf planets, astronomers can piece together the puzzle of how our cosmic neighborhood came into existence.

7.1. Dwarf Planet Classification

Makemake's classification as a dwarf planet is based on a set of criteria established by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). To be classified as a dwarf planet, an object must orbit the Sun, have enough mass for its gravity to pull it into a roughly spherical shape, and have cleared its orbit of other debris. Makemake meets these criteria and is thus designated as a dwarf planet. This classification enables us to categorize and study Makemake along with other dwarf planets like Pluto and Haumea, enriching our knowledge of these unique objects in our solar system.

7.2. Kuiper Belt Objects

Makemake is a member of a group of objects known as Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). The Kuiper Belt is a region of the outer solar system beyond Neptune's orbit that is packed with countless icy bodies. Being a KBO, Makemake is composed mostly of volatile substances, such as methane and nitrogen ices, which gives it a distinct surface and atmospheric composition. By studying Makemake and other KBOs, scientists hope to understand the formation and evolution of these icy bodies, shedding light on the history of the outer regions of our solar system.

7.3. Insights into Solar System Formation

Examining Makemake provides valuable insights into the formation of our solar system. As one of the largest known objects in the Kuiper Belt, Makemake likely formed alongside other dwarf planets and comets billions of years ago from a swirling disk of gas and dust. By studying Makemake's size, composition, and orbital characteristics, scientists can gather clues about the conditions and processes that led to the birth of our solar system. These investigations help us piece together the puzzle of how planets, moons, and other celestial bodies originated and evolved over billions of years.

8. Conclusion

In conclusion, the history of Planet Makemake provides valuable insights into our solar system. Its discovery, made possible by the Hubble Space Telescope, led to its naming and further understanding of its physical characteristics. Makemake's size and mass, surface composition, and atmosphere all contribute to our understanding of this distant dwarf planet. Its orbit and rotation, including its distance from the Sun, orbital period, and axial tilt, also play a significant role in studying Makemake and its seasons. The discovery and characteristics of its moons add another layer of interest to this celestial object. Exploration missions like the New Horizons Flyby and future plans for further exploration further enhance our knowledge of Makemake. Understanding Makemake's significance as a dwarf planet and its association with Kuiper Belt Objects helps us better categorize and comprehend the vastness of our solar system. As a whole, the study of Makemake provides valuable insights into solar system formation and deepens our understanding of the universe.