For the first time, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has seen distinctly the "tenth planet," currently nicknamed "Xena," and found that it's only slightly larger than Pluto.

Though previous ground-based observations suggested that Xena's diameter was about 30 percent greater than Pluto, Hubble observations taken Dec. 9 and 10, 2005, showed Xena's diameter as 1,490 miles (with an uncertainty of 60 miles).

Pluto's diameter, as measured by Hubble, is 1,422 miles.

Image above: An artist's concept of the Kuiper Belt Object nicknamed "Xena," with its moon dubbed "Gabrielle" just above. The sun can be seen in the upper left corner. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Schaller (for STScI)
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"Hubble is the only telescope capable of getting a clean visible-light measurement of the actual diameter of Xena," said Mike Brown, planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. Brown's research team discovered Xena, officially cataloged as 2003 UB313, and its results have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Only a handful of images were required to determine Xena's diameter. Located 10 billion miles from Earth with a diameter a little more than half the width of the United States, the object is 1.5 pixels across in Hubble's view. That's enough to make a precise size measurement.

Xena as photographed by Hubble Image right: Located 10 billion miles away, but with a diameter that is a little more than half the width of the United States, Xena is only 1.5 picture elements across in Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys' view. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Brown (CalTech)

Because Xena is smaller than previously thought, but comparatively bright, it must be one of the most reflective objects in the solar system. The only object more reflective is Enceladus, a geologically active moon of Saturn whose surface is continuously recoated with highly reflective ice by active geysers.

Xena's bright reflectivity is possibly due to fresh methane frost on its surface. The object may have had an atmosphere when it was closer to the sun, but as it moved to its current location farther away this atmosphere would have "frozen out," settling on the surface as frost.

Another possibility is that Xena leaks methane gas continuously from its warmer interior. When this methane reaches the cold surface, it immediately freezes solid, covering craters and other features to make it uniformly bright to Hubble's telescopic eye.

Size of Kuiper Belt ObjectsImage left: This illustration of the largest known Kuiper Belt Objects shows Xena slightly larger than Pluto. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
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Xena's takes about 560 years to orbit the sun, and it is now very close to aphelion (the point on its orbit that is farthest from the sun). Brown next plans to use Hubble and other telescopes to study other recently discovered Kuiper Belt objects that are almost as large as Pluto and Xena. The Kuiper Belt is a vast ring of primordial icy comets and larger bodies encircling Neptune's orbit.

Finding that the largest known Kuiper Belt object is a virtual twin to Pluto may only further complicate the debate about whether to categorize the large icy worlds that populate the belt as planets. If Pluto were considered to be the minimum size for a planet, then Xena would fulfill this criterion, too. In time, the International Astronomical Union will designate the official name.

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From Nasa

NASA-Funded Scientists Discover Tenth Planet

A planet larger than Pluto has been discovered in the outlying regions of the solar system.

The planet was discovered using the Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory near San Diego, Calif. The discovery was announced today by planetary scientist Dr. Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., whose research is partly funded by NASA.

time-lapse image of planet 2003UB313, which is circled
Image above: These time-lapse images of a newfound planet in our solar system, called 2003UB313, were taken on Oct. 21, 2003, using the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, Calif. The planet, circled in white, is seen moving across a field of stars. The three images were taken about 90 minutes apart. Scientists did not discover that the object in these pictures was a planet until Jan. 8, 2005. Image credit: Samuel Oschin Telescope, Palomar Observatory
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+ Quicktime (CC): Narrated overview of discovery

The planet is a typical member of the Kuiper belt, but its sheer size in relation to the nine known planets means that it can only be classified as a planet, Brown said. Currently about 97 times further from the sun than the Earth, the planet is the farthest-known object in the solar system, and the third brightest of the Kuiper belt objects.

"It will be visible with a telescope over the next six months and is currently almost directly overhead in the early-morning eastern sky, in the constellation Cetus," said Brown, who made the discovery with colleagues Chad Trujillo, of the Gemini Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and David Rabinowitz, of Yale University, New Haven, Conn., on January 8.

Brown, Trujillo and Rabinowitz first photographed the new planet with the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope on October 31, 2003. However, the object was so far away that its motion was not detected until they reanalyzed the data in January of this year. In the last seven months, the scientists have been studying the planet to better estimate its size and its motions.

"It's definitely bigger than Pluto," said Brown, who is a professor of planetary astronomy.

Scientists can infer the size of a solar system object by its brightness, just as one can infer the size of a faraway light bulb if one knows its wattage. The reflectance of the planet is not yet known. Scientists can not yet tell how much light from the sun is reflected away, but the amount of light the planet reflects puts a lower limit on its size.

"Even if it reflected 100 percent of the light reaching it, it would still be as big as Pluto," says Brown. "I'd say it's probably one and a half times the size of Pluto, but we're not sure yet of the final size.

"We are 100 percent confident that this is the first object bigger than Pluto ever found in the outer solar system," Brown added.

A name for the new planet has been proposed by the discoverers to the International Astronomical Union, and they are awaiting the decision of this body before announcing the name.

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New Planets

Here is a picture of the new planet. It has the tiny circles around it, and it is time lapsed.

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