Daily Archives: May 9, 2011

Quaoar

What would you say if you saw, dancing a slow dance in your telescope, a new world – or at least a world new to you?

You might say “Cool!” or “Wow!” I’m tempted to say I would have said “Phwooar!” but that’s really a British male expression of appreciation for a woman’s curves. But cool and wow and phwooar are similar to what Chad Trujillo and Mike Brown said:

Quaoar!

OK, that’s probably not the first thing they said, but that’s the name they gave it.

The “it” in question isn’t really a planet, not quite (in fact it’s not much more than a third the diameter of Earth’s moon), so it’s not really a world qua world, but it’s way bigger than an asteroid – it’s about 1250 kilometres in diameter. It’s a KBO: a Kuiper Belt object. The Kuiper Belt is a bunch of big bits orbiting beyond Neptune. The biggest KBO is the former planet known as Pluto, which has about twice the diameter (and thus eight times the volume) of Quaoar. Quaoar has an orbit a bit farther out than Pluto’s (it takes 288 years to circle the sun), but it’s a nice, circular, non-eccentric orbit, unlike Pluto’s. Trujillo and Brown first spotted it in 2002.

OK, but why did they call this ball of (probably) rock and ice out in the cold, dark periphery of the solar system Quaoar?

I mean, really, it looks like the name of some creature from H.P. Lovecraft, say, or a representation of the growling roar of a nasty large quarrelsome bloodthirsty beast. The lips, in saying it, make a “wow-a”, but the tongue launches the whole thing from the back and ends tense in the middle of the mouth, like the creature ready to hurl itself forth.

The big Q is like a planet with a motion line, but it also carries, in English, a certain resonance of exoticness and uncertainty. The word may recall Latin for you, or it may make you think of a quark. The string of vowels in the middle befuddles the eyes. Try typing it without hesitating. You may find it requires practice. It just seems unnatural. Strange. And threatening, perhaps.

And yet in fact the original Quaoar is quite likeable. Quaoar is a deity of the Tongva people, whose ancestral lands are around Caltech (the California Institute of Technology, setting, incidentally, for the TV show The Big Bang Theory), where Trujillo and Brown worked (Brown is still there; Trujillo is now in Hawai’i). But Quaoar is not just any deity. Quaoar is the Tongva creation deity.

Quaoar, you see, came along into the primordial chaos and was sad to see a whole lot of nothing. So he/she/it danced Weywot (the Sky Father) and Chehooit (the Earth Mother) into existence, and then the three of them danced more gods into existence, and each new god joined the dance and danced more into existence…

It makes me think of a church song, “Lord of the Dance” (not Michael Flatley’s touring show), which starts,

I danced in the morning when the world was begun
I danced in the moon, the stars and the sun…

If you’d like to know more about this distant world and its quaoardinates, I mean coordinates, see www.chadtrujillo.com/quaoar/ and science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2002/07oct_newworld/.