Why This Newly Discovered Pink Dwarf Planet Is So Exciting

CC BY 2.0. Artist concept of 2018 VG18 "Farout" ( Credit Roberto Molar Candanosa/Carnegie Institution for Science.)

Nicknamed 'Farout' by the team that discovered it, the celestial object is some 11,160,000,000 miles away.

There's a new pink dwarf planet in town, and it has a remarkable claim to make: At 120 astronomical units away, it is the most-distant body ever observed in our Solar System. That's the main thing that makes it so exciting – sorry about that tease of a headline, but I couldn't fit it all in.

The intriguing new object was announced by the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center and has been given the provisional designation of 2018 VG18. Which is pretty unglamorous for such a remarkable heavenly body. While there are still plenty of mythological gods and goddesses left, the IAU works diligently to keep track of all the celestial objects being discovered, and thus discoveries are assigned a permanent number, like an ISBN for books, for easy reference. A lengthier and more formal naming process usually happens later on.

In the meantime, however, 2018 VG18's discoverers – Carnegie Institution of Science's Scott S. Sheppard, the University of Hawaii's David Tholen, and Northern Arizona University's Chad Trujillo – have nicknamed it "Farout" for its extreme distance from the sun.

So how far out is Farout? An astronomical unit (AU) is the distance between the Earth and the Sun – about 93 million miles – and the new discovery is 120 AUs away. By my calculations, that's roughly 11,160,000,000 miles. According to Carnegie, the second-most-distant observed Solar System object is Eris, at about 96 AU, noting that "Pluto is currently at about 34 AU, making 2018 VG18 more than three-and-a-half times more distant than the Solar System's most-famous dwarf planet."


© Solar System distances to scale showing the newly discovered 2018 VG18 "Farout" compared to other known Solar System objects. (Roberto Molar Candanosa/Scott S. Sheppard/Carnegie Institution for Science.)

For some perspective, we once looked at how long it would take to drive to Pluto; when Pluto was 39 AU away, driving at a steady pace of 65 miles per hour it would take 6,293 years. So I'm guessing it would take about 18,000 to 19,000 years to drive to Farout. Just a quick jaunt.

Its brightness suggests that it is about 300 miles in diameter; it's pretty pinkish hue is likely due to its ice-rich nature. (So of course, I'm picturing an enormous pink diamond floating around the edge of our Solar System.)

The team who discovered 2018 VG18 have been scouring space in search of extremely distant objects, including the huge (and as-of-yet unseen) Planet X. Also known as Planet 9, the presence of this suspected planet explains a number of mysteries; some suggest it’s responsible for the unusual tilt of the sun.

The existence of Planet X was first proposed by this same research team in 2014 when they discovered 2012 VP113, nicknamed Biden, which is currently near 84 AU away. The team doesn't know 2018 VG18's orbit very well yet, so they have not been able to determine if it shows signs of being shaped by Planet X, like they suspect the orbit of other objects has been.


"2018 VG18 is much more distant and slower moving than any other observed Solar System object, so it will take a few years to fully determine its orbit," said Sheppard. "But it was found in a similar location on the sky to the other known extreme Solar System objects, suggesting it might have the same type of orbit that most of them do. The orbital similarities shown by many of the known small, distant Solar System bodies was the catalyst for our original assertion that there is a distant, massive planet at several hundred AU shepherding these smaller objects."

"All that we currently know about 2018 VG18 is its extreme distance from the Sun, its approximate diameter, and its color," added Tholen "Because 2018 VG18 is so distant, it orbits very slowly, likely taking more than 1,000 years to take one trip around the Sun."

A far as I'm concerned, a newly discovered pink dwarf planet that takes a 1,000 years to orbit the sun and is the most-distant body ever observed in our Solar System is enough for now ... but I can't wait to hear more as they learn more details of this celestial beauty. And in the meantime, maybe they'll even find that elusive Planet X.