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Astronomers uncover new information about Makemake, a dwarf planet with no atmosphere

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Milky Way ESO
Milky Way ESO

With the help of seven telescopes in South America, scientists have uncovered new information about Makemake, one of the five dwarf planets in our solar system. According to a new study published in Nature, astronomers were able to calculate the dwarf's shape, density, and its atmospheric conditions after it passed in front of a distant star — an event otherwise known as a stellar occultation. BBC News reports that, until now, Makemake had yet to undergo extensive observation.

Led by Jose Luis Ortiz of the the Andalucian Institute of Astrophysics, the team observed that during the one-minute occultation, light emitting from the star quickly disappeared and reappeared. The discovery debunks previous belief that Makemake had a "significant atmosphere," since planetary bodies with an atmosphere typically cause light behind it to fade in and out gradually. The scientists were also able to study the general size and shape of Makemake, revealing a mostly-spherical body about 930 miles across with a density similar to fellow-dwarf Pluto, but less than a third of that found with Earth. Makemake orbits the sun at a distance further than Pluto, but closer than Eris, the largest dwarf planet in our solar system.