The final part in a three-part series on NAU research.
Just one week before Christmas, a team of astronomers including Northern Arizona University scientist Chad Trujillo and graduate student Will Oldroyd confirmed the discovery of the most distant solar system object ever observed, 2018 VG18, nicknamed “Farout,” at 120 astronomical units (AU).
Farout, a pinkish, likely spherical object, exists well beyond Pluto, which sits at 34 AU, where 1 AU is the distance between the Earth and the sun, or approximately 93 million miles. The second-most distant observed object in the solar system is Eris, a dwarf planet located at 96 AU that Trujillo also co-discovered.
Trujillo told NAU News, “It goes to show that there is a lot more to be explored — right now, even with all the achievements in telescope technology, we are barely scratching the surface of what might be in the outer fringes of our solar system.”
The NAU scientist worked with Carnegie Science’s Scott S. Sheppard and the University of Hawaii’s David Tholen on the discovery. In October, the same team also discovered dwarf planet 2015 TG387, nicknamed “The Goblin” because its observation occurred near Halloween. The Goblin is located at 80 AU.
Little is currently known about Farout, except basic properties.
“Its brightness suggests that it is about 500 kilometers in diameter, likely making it spherical in shape and a dwarf planet. It has a pinkish hue, a color generally associated with ice-rich objects,” Carnegie Science reported.
To confirm the initial observation, taken with the Japanese Subaru telescope in Hawaii on Nov. 10, a second observation was performed at the Magellan telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile about a month later.
Oldroyd, a doctoral candidate of NAU’s Astronomy and Planetary Science program, traveled to Chile to take part in two nights of observations of various solar system objects using the Magellan telescope. Farout was the most notable, though, he said.
NAU President Rita Cheng said the university’s undergraduate astronomy program is one of the best ranked among its peers and is aligned with the culture and needs of the region.
Years ago, university administrators noted the success of the astronomy department -- complemented by Flagstaff’s rich history of astronomical progress and partnerships with Lowell Observatory -- and hoped to expand its potential with faculty help.
“We asked them, ‘If you had a few more faculty and you had a Ph. D. program, what could you accomplish?’” Cheng said.
Faculty members were asked to identify colleagues throughout the county who might be able to join them at NAU. This strategic hiring process -- completed with successful research groups across the university, not just those in astronomy -- led to a larger, more competitive group of faculty and the creation of the graduate program in which Oldroyd is now involved.
“When I was hired, I knew that, strategically, we could hire some really quality people, support them and allow them to do the work that we are now seeing them accomplish,” Cheng said.
Oldroyd said, even in the short time he has been at NAU, research opportunities have been abundant.
“Recently, several new professors have been hired to help increase the depth and to broaden the research topics of the department,” he said. “I’ve already had lots of opportunities in the last several months to join several different projects to learn more about the solar system.”
Coding the stars
In a field largely dependent on what can be observed visually, Oldroyd says skills like coding are essential. In his undergraduate work at Brigham Young University, he modeled different systems to calculate objects’ interactions with each other and predict their future positions, a useful tool for astronomical observations. He started his graduate studies at NAU in August because of his interest in Trujillo’s outer solar system research.
Oldroyd encourages others to get involved with coding because of its widespread applications.
“Coding experience is extremely important nowadays. In basically every science field you can excel if you know how to code,” he said.
More to discover
Farout is just one example of the seemingly-endless scientific advancements being made around the world and at research universities like NAU. These advancements will lead to additional progress in disciplines of all types, for use in better understanding and adapting to the universe and its many mysteries.
“There’s plenty more in our solar system to discover,” Oldroyd said. “We’ve found something farther away than we ever have before, so there must be more out there.”