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Deep-space deities

Haleakala's new Pan-STARRS-1 telescope might help scientists identify a host of new objects

By Star-Advertiser staff

LAST UPDATED: 2:36 a.m. HST, Jan 24, 2011

In the outer reaches of the solar system, in a mysterious and remote area known as the Kuiper Belt, spins one dwarf planet named after the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and childbirth and another bearing the name of Rapa Nui's birdlike god of creation.

Haumea and Makemake — and the former, demoted planet Pluto — are among five larger identified objects in the Kuiper Belt, a collection of oddball rocks and ice beyond the orbit of Neptune.

And as a new telescope atop Haleakala is quickly enumerating, the largely unexplored region is proving to be home to thousands of smaller objects that could one day carry the names of other Polynesian deities.

The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) PS1 telescope has already found 10 objects within the region. Based on their brightness, the objects are believed to range in size from 180 to 300 miles across.

Matthew Holman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics presented the findings this month at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

The data are being gathered as part of the ongoing Outer Solar System Key Project, a comprehensive survey of the sky visible from the telescope's location on Haleakala.

While the principal mission of Pan-STARRS is to find and track asteroids that could someday smash Earth, surveying the Kuiper Belt has proved to be a fruitful new task.

"We're excited that Pan-STARRS is beginning to find these objects," said Holman. "It marks the tip of the iceberg for future Pan-STARRS discoveries."

Added team member Ying-Tung Chen, a graduate student at the National Central University of Taiwan, "Pan-STARRS-1 offers us a remarkable opportunity to study the outer solar system in unprecedented detail."

The research is expected to provide a firmer understanding of the structure, dynamics and evolution of the outer solar system, said a Harvard-Smithsonian information sheet. Pan-STARRS is also likely to be a productive tool for discovering new comets, the center said.

Pan-STARRS-1 is a 71-inch telescope featuring the world's largest digital camera — a 1.4-gigapixel (1,400-megapixel) device that can photograph an area as large as 36 full moons in a single exposure. PS1 became fully operational in June.

Haumea, named for the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, was discovered in 2004 by Mike Brown of Caltech using the Palomar Observatory. It was designated a dwarf planet or "plutoid" by the International Astrophysical Union in 2008.

Its elongated shape and fast rotation make it unique among known dwarf planets.

Makemake, named for the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) god of creation, was discovered in 2005, also by Brown. It is the third-largest known dwarf planet, after Eris and Pluto.

It typically takes a few years for the International Astronomical Union to formally acknowledge Kuiper Belt objects and give them a name to replace their number and letter designation.

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