Makemake makes the list

The International Astronomical Union adds a third plutoid to the list of Pluto's family

Pluto has yet another brother. The International Astronomical Union has accepted the name Makemake for the newest family member of dwarf planets and the subgroup plutoids.

MAKING THE LIST This image shows an illustration of Makemake, the fourth dwarf planet and third plutoid named by the International Astronomical Union. Formerly known as 2005 FY9, it is named after the Polynesian god of fertility and creator of humanity. Click on the image for more. IAU, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble)

Makemake (pronounced MAH-kay MAH-kay) is two-thirds the size of Pluto and slightly dimmer than the former planet. The new object — formerly known as 2005 FY9 — also has a reddish tinge. The name was recently accepted by the IAU after discussions circulated via email.

In June, the IAU decided that dwarf planets similar to Pluto would be called plutoids. The name distinguishes these objects, which sit beyond Neptune, from Ceres, a dwarf planet that sits in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Like Pluto and Eris, the other plutoids, Makemake sits beyond Neptune in a region populated with other small solar system bodies. A team from the California Institute of Technology led by Mike Brown discovered the dwarf planet in 2005 and unofficially dubbed the object “Easter bunny.”

“It was close to Easter when we found Makemake,” Brown says.

The discoverer of a potential dwarf planet, though, has the privilege of suggesting an official name for it to the IAU. The only stipulation is that the name must have a mythological origin.

Brown says the dwarf planet had no physical characteristics that easily connected it with fabled names. But discovery of Makemake, Eris and a potential fourth plutoid, 2003 EL61, coincided with Brown’s wife being pregnant, he recalls. “We have been searching six or seven years. Then suddenly these objects were all being found out at once,” he says, “and I remember thinking, the universe is this incredibly fertile thing throwing objects at me left and right.”

So Brown settled on the Polynesian word Makemake, which is the name for the god of fertility and also the name of the creator of humanity in the mythology of the South Pacific Island of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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