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Two New Dwarf Planets Discovered in Outer Solar System

Astronomers have now confirmed the discovery of two new dwarf planets: 2013 FY27 and 2013 FZ27. In order to be categorized as a dwarf planet, a celestial body must orbit the sun directly (as opposed to a moon which would orbit the planet directly and the sun indirectly) and be massive enough that its own gravitational force created its round shape. Regular planets must have an orbit that doesn’t intersect with another planet’s orbit, while dwarf planets are free of that restriction. (Side note: this is where Pluto went wrong and had to be reclassified when the definitions were set in 2006). Dwarf planet 2013 FZ27 is currently about 50 astronomical units (1 AU = 1 average Earth distance from the Sun) away from the Sun on the far end of the Kuiper Belt. The diameter is roughly 600 km (372 miles) across. FY27 is just over 80 AU away from the sun and its 3.0 magnitude means that it is actually the ninth brightest object past Neptune. There is a little variation in the diameter, as it could be 760-1,500 km (472-932 miles) but it is most likely right around 1,000 km (620 miles).

This announcement is especially exciting considering that last week, dwarf planet 2012 VP113 (nicknamed Biden, because of Joe Biden, “VP” of the United States. Get it?! Womp womp.) was also confirmed by the same group. These three dwarf planets were all discovered using the Dark Energy Camera on the Blanco telescope in Chile. Scientists speculate that dwarf planets could be much more abundant in the outskirts of the solar system than is currently known. Objects in the Kuiper Belt are so distant, they reflect light fairly poorly, which makes them hard to detect. Using the Blanco’s Dark Energy Camera, more of these objects could come to light. The astounding 570 megapixel camera (as a comparison, an iPhone is 8 megapixels) was first put into use in 2012 and is able to detect faint light better than previous devices. We could very well see a surge in the number of known dwarf planets in our solar system as more of the collected data is processed.
Traditional devices for thermal imaging are relatively bulky, because the mechanisms that detect the mid- and far-infrared radiation need to be cooled significantly. A team of engineers from the University of Michigan have made a sensor that can detect the infrared spectrum at room temperature. Because the sensor is made of graphene and therefore extremely small, the team could potentially put this technology into all sorts of things, including heat vision contact lenses. The technology has been described in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.  The sensor works by putting a insulator between two sheets of graphene, the bottom of which was charged. When light hits the top layer, it frees electrons that are able to slip through the insulation down to the bottom layer. The electrons leave positively-charged holes in the upper layer, which affect the charged bottom layer and create the signal needed to identify light. The operation is based on certain principles of quantum mechanics that the team was able to exploit.

The result was a new way to detect light that may not just work with graphene; it could have a host of practical applications with other materials. Zhong reports that the sensor, which is currently the size of a fingernail, could easily be made smaller. While not everyone would have a need for thermal vision contact lenses, the technology could also be integrated into cell phones or other devices. Graphene is a honeycomb-shaped arrangement of carbon that is only one atom thick. Previous attempts to use graphene as a light sensor have failed, as the material is not able to absorb enough light to trigger the necessary electrical signal, as they only absorb about 2.3% of the light it comes into contact with. One of the researchers, Zhaohui Zhong, described traditional graphene sensors as about one thousand times less sensitive than current commercially available sensors. Zhong and his collaborators were able to remedy the problem by thinking about it backwards. Instead of trying to bolster the amount of electricity produced by the graphene, they focused on how the electric current produced by the light is affected by the material. Zhough the obvious uses for this technology would be military applications, there are many other uses for thermal imaging, including scanning for cancers, mapping energy losses in buildings, studying volcanoes, finding faults in electrical circuits, aiding firefighters, and detecting several metabolic, musculoskeletal, or inflammatory medical conditions.

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