The Solar System's Weirdest Object?
The astronomy that's been making headlines recently is all deep-space stuff -- the search for planets like our own orbiting distant suns in galaxies most of us have never heard of. But there's plenty of fascinating stuff left to be discovered in our own backyard, so to speak -- that is, within the Milky Way. Just a few years ago the Huygens probe touched down on the Saturnian moon of Titan, discovering a bizarre world the texture and color of which one scientist likened to CrÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, landing near a mist-enshrouded shoreline and drainage channels that led to a methane sea. Pretty darn cool, all told.
Add one more oddity to the list: deep in the Kuiper Belt, an icy region beyond the planets where Pluto makes its home, astronomers have discovered a cigar-shaped dwarf planet called Haumea. It's as big across as Pluto is, but shaped like a squashed cigar. Astronomers began paying attention to it when they noticed an object that got brighter and dimmer every few hours, which seemed to indicate a seriously fast rate of spin -- so fast that a round planet like Pluto would be ripped apart by gravity. It seems that it's this spin -- the same force that makes Earth bulge a bit in the middle -- that elongated Haumea into a cigar shape, making it the fastest spinning object in the solar system.
Another strangeness is that this cigar- (or football, depending on whom you ask) shaped object has not one but two satellites -- more than any other Kuiper Belt object. All of which would make the experience of standing on Haumea's surface a uniquely strange experience: its super-fast rotation would make you very light, since the faster an object spins the more it has the effect of throwing you off into space. Add to that the very dim, cold sun rising and setting every 90 minutes or so, throwing fast-moving shadows across the icy landscape beneath your feet, and lighting up one or the other of the two ice moons above you. Bring crampons and a parka, and stay tuned for more news of the weird from our very own solar system.