Scientists Say: Dwarf planet | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Dwarf planet

Some space objects look like planets but are too small to be one
Mar 20, 2017 — 6:50 am EST
Eris

Dwarf planets may not have enough gravity to clear their own paths, but they do have enough to bring in their own moons! This is dwarf planet Eris and its moon, Dysnomia. 

Caltech

Dwarf planet (noun, “Dwarf PLAN-et”)

These are objects in space that are too small to be planets but too big to be asteroids. Like full-sized planets, dwarf planets have enough gravity to be round in shape. They orbit the sun or another star. But unlike planets, dwarf planets are too small for their gravity to clear other objects out its path. A planet is big enough that all of the asteroids and comets in its orbit have been pulled in or flung away by the planet's gravity. But a dwarf planet doesn’t have enough gravitational power. Its orbit remains full of asteroids and other debris.

In a sentence

Being a dwarf planet doesn't mean Pluto is just a chunk of rock; its heart shape could come from outside impacts or even internal tectonic plate activity.

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

asteroid     A rocky object in orbit around the sun. Most orbit in a region that falls between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers refer to this region as the asteroid belt.

comet     A celestial object consisting of a nucleus of ice and dust. When a comet passes near the sun, gas and dust vaporize off the comet’s surface, creating its trailing “tail.”

debris     Scattered fragments, typically of trash or of something that has been destroyed. Space debris, for instance, includes the wreckage of defunct satellites and spacecraft.

dwarf planet     One of the solar system’s small celestial objects. Like a true planet, it orbits the sun. However, dwarf planets are too small to qualify as true planets. Prime examples of these objects: Pluto and Ceres.

gravity     The force that attracts anything with mass, or bulk, toward any other thing with mass. The more mass that something has, the greater its gravity.

orbit     The curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet or moon. One complete circuit around a celestial body.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and it must have cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, it must be big enough to pull neighboring objects into the planet itself or to sling-shot them around the planet and off into outer space. Astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created this three-part scientific definition of a planet in August 2006 to determine Pluto’s status. Based on that definition, IAU ruled that Pluto did not qualify. The solar system now includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Pluto     A dwarf planet that is located in the Kuiper Belt, just beyond Neptune. Pluto is the tenth largest object orbiting the sun.

solar system     The eight major planets and their moons in orbit around the sun, together with smaller bodies in the form of dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and comets.

star     The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Or a sunlike star.

NGSS: 

  • MS-ESS1-3
  • HS-ESS1-2
  • HS-ESS1-4