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Planet-like object nicknamed Biden could help explain solar system’s origins

Three images of the night sky, each taken about two hours apart, have been combined. The first image was artificially colored red, the second green and the third blue. 2012 VP113 moved between each image as seen by the red, green and blue dots. (Scott Sheppard/Carnegie Institution for Science)

More than 7 billion miles away from the sun, out on the far reaches of the solar system, astronomers have spotted a planet-like object they’ve never seen before, and they’ve nicknamed it Biden.

Not that it has any real similarities to the vice president, other than a reddish tint and, arguably, its inclination toward the far-out. The name is more coincidence than anything and may be changed to something more official and mythological soon. But for now, Smiling Joe has his own celestial body — 2012 VP-113, which its discoverers have shortened to VP, or Biden.

Scientists Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington and Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii reported the find in the science journal Nature.

“It goes to show that there’s something we don’t know about our solar system, and it’s something important,” Trujillo told Nature. “We’re starting to get a taste of what’s out beyond what we consider the edge.”

We don’t know what it’s made of yet — although with a temperature of minus 430 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s likely covered in ice. It’s about 280 miles in diameter, a dot compared with Earth, which is 7,900 miles across.

Scientists hope it can provide new clues about how our solar system formed.

Sheppard and Trujillo first saw the object, which could be a dwarf planet, using a 520-megapixel camera on a ground telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. To see objects so far away from Earth, they take three pictures of the sky, an hour or two apart, creating a time-lapse movie of the night sky. Anything that changes location over the course of the pictures is something worth investigating.

Sheppard says that it takes a year or two after discovery, after observing the object’s orbit, before they’ll know whether their find is significant.

In 2003, Trujillo and several other scientists found the first object in this part of the solar system, known as the inner Oort cloud. They named it Sedna after the Inuit goddess of the sea, given their similar living arrangements. The goddess lived underneath the Arctic Sea, while Sedna, covered in ice, charts a path around the sun in the coldest known part of the solar system.

Scientists originally thought that Sedna, which is nearly twice as big as its newfound neighbor, was just an oddity, a lone possible dwarf planet that accidentally ended up at the farthest reaches of the solar system. Now that they’ve made a similar find, there’s proof that there might be thousands of Sedna-like orbs dotting the far sky.

The Minor Planet Center, which is headquartered at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., gives out names to aspiring dwarf planets, and it was the source of the VP-113 name. Once the object’s orbit is established, Trujillo and Sheppard will be able to submit their own name for consideration to the International Astronomical Union. Following the example of Sedna, Trujillo and Sheppard are thinking of something to do with Arctic mythology.

“We’re surprised at the number of people who asked us about the Biden nickname,” Sheppard said. They placed bets on how many news articles about their find would mention the object’s tenuous political connection. Sheppard guessed a handful, and Trujillo thought even fewer would bother with mentioning Biden. Since nearly every article has found the vice president’s peripheral role a pertinent detail, Sheppard guesses he won.

“We even joked that maybe Biden will give us a call sometime and invite us to the White House.”

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.

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