The distant dwarf planet Makemake orbits the frozen edges of our solar system and has finally come out of the shadows long enough for astronomers to get a decent look at Pluto’s little sibling, National Geographic reports.
Makemake, which is pronounced mah-keh mah-keh after a Polynesian creation god, is one of five Pluto-like objects that were classified as dwarf planets in 2006; it was discovered in 2005.
The icy object circles the sun beyond Neptune, like Pluto.
According to National Geographic, researchers had believed that Makemake had an atmosphere, but new evidence casts doubt on it.
By using the three most powerful telescopes in the European Southern Observatory in Chile, international astronomers were able to determine some of the physical characteristics of Makemake.
Researchers observed that the amount of light changed on Makemake when it passed in front of a distant star.
"These events are extremely difficult to predict and observe, but they are the only means of obtaining accurate knowledge of important properties of dwarf planets," Jose Luis Ortiz, lead author of the new study and an astronomer at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia in Spain, told National Geographic.
Ortiz explained that astronomers figured out that Makemake did not have an atmosphere from how light from the distant star behind it abruptly brightened and darkened.
"The light went off very abruptly from all the sites we observed the event, so this means this world cannot have a substantial and global atmosphere like that of its sibling Pluto," Ortiz said.
The light would gradually decrease if the dwarf planet had an atmosphere.
Scientists were able to discover more about the planet after using the powerful telescopes, especially assessing its size and surface more accurately.
"We think Makemake is a sphere flattened slightly at both poles and mostly covered with very white ices — mainly of methane," said Ortiz.
"But there are also indications for some organic material at least at some places; this material is usually very red and we think in a small percentage of the surface, the terrain is quite dark," he added.
It’s not certain why Makemake doesn’t have an atmosphere, but Ortiz theorizes it has to do with its lack of nitrogen ice.
When the sun heats up the nitrogen ice on Pluto, it turns it into gas, creating the atmosphere.
Since Makemake doesn’t have anything for the sun to heat up on its surface, there’s nothing to make up its atmosphere, Ortiz said.