Colin Scheibner ’17 remembers the exact moment when he and his fellow researchers realized they had discovered a new dwarf planet. All they saw was a small smudge on their monitor, but they knew it represented a big find.
“Suddenly, there was an intimate sense of connection between our circle of collaborators and this small icy world on the distant edge of our solar system,” says Scheibner, a Rossing Physics Scholar who majored in physics and math at St. Olaf.
Scheibner was part of an undergraduate research team headed by University of Michigan physics and astronomy professor David Gerdes, a member of an international group of scientists working on the Dark Energy Survey (DES) to better understand why the universe’s expansion is accelerating. The team analyzed countless images collected by the DES-built dark energy camera, a powerful digital camera on a four-meter telescope at Chile’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory.
Scheibner’s role in this research was the development of a web-based tool used to examine distant objects in the images. Using it enabled Scheibner to identify the earliest known observation of the new dwarf planet, officially named 2014 UZ224 and nicknamed DeeDee, short for “distant dwarf.” DeeDee is approximately 330 miles across and 8.5 billion miles from the sun — about half as big and twice as distant as Pluto.
The dwarf planet’s discovery received national news coverage, mainly focused on how it might impact future research. Scheibner explains, “If you look at the most distant objects in our solar system, like DeeDee, you notice that their orbits are aligned in such a way that suggests that they are being pulled by a massive, distant, slow-moving body.”
This hypothetical body, known as Planet Nine, is thought to be about ten times more massive than Earth, but it has never been directly observed. “Such an object, if spotted,” says Scheibner, “would be the astronomical discovery of the century.”
This fall, Scheibner entered the physics Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago with a three-year graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which will support his doctoral work in theoretical physics.