St. Olaf College student Colin Scheibner ’17 remembers the exact moment that he and his fellow researchers realized that they had discovered a new dwarf planet.
“We saw the small smudge on the screen of the monitor that represented our dwarf planet,” says Scheibner.
“Suddenly,” he goes on, “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.”
This summer, Scheibner was part of a research team headed by David Gerdes, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Michigan. The team analyzed tens of thousands of images collected by the Dark Energy Camera, a powerful digital camera on a four-meter telescope in Cerro Tololo, Chile.
Scheibner’s role in this research was the development of a web-based tool for examining distant objects in the images collected by the camera, which was originally commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy. With his tool, Scheibner identified the earliest known observation of the new planet, officially known as 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 attracted attention from national news sources, including National Public Radio, The Washington Post, and Wired.
“That attention has been incredibly gratifying,” says Scheibner, who joined the research team through the University of Michigan’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Scheibner says, “As scientists, we spend hours, days, and years slaving away in classrooms and laboratories. And we want so badly to share our excitement, discoveries, and fundamental sense of curiosity with broader audiences.”
Learning about the coalescence of our solar system
Much of the news coverage about DeeDee revolved around the implications of the University of Michigan team’s discovery for 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 body is known as Planet Nine, which has been hypothesized to exist but never directly observed. Scheibner says that “such an object, if spotted, would be the astronomical discovery of the century.”
And the team’s discovery provides compelling evidence that Planet Nine, which is about ten times more massive than Earth, could be spotted. In fact, Gerdes claims that any image taken by the Dark Energy Camera might contain a picture of it.
“The fact that we can find a very distant object like DeeDee in our data is a promising sign that if there are more things like this out there, we have a good shot at finding them,” Gerdes explains to The Washington Post.
He goes on, “These dwarf planets are kind of the primordial globs of stuff that formed the rest of the planets, so by studying them, we can learn about that primordial solar nebula out of which the other planets coalesced.”
Forming scientific habits of mind
Scheibner says that opportunities at St. Olaf have “equipped me with both the habits of mind and the scientific expertise to be successful on this research team.”
As a physics and mathematics major, Scheibner has taken many classes at St. Olaf that have prepared him well for an advanced research experience like the University of Michigan REU.
“I think that the introductory physics laboratories here are pedagogically effective because of their coding emphasis, which gives students the skills to be effective scientists in the field,” he says.
Scheibner has also pursued opportunities outside of St. Olaf. In the summer of 2014, Scheibner participated in the University of Minnesota Materials Research Science and Engineering Center REU, where he wrote image analysis algorithms to track vibrations in ultrafast electron micrographs.
“Although I went from nanometers and femtoseconds to kiloyears and astronomical units, my experience in coding and data analysis at the University of Minnesota MRSEC transitioned smoothly into this research experience,” says Scheibner.
In addition, his research at the University of Minnesota MRSEC helped Scheibner earn the Rossing Physics Scholarship in 2015.
Scheibner plans to pursue further research opportunities and earn his Ph.D. in theoretical physics or mathematics after graduating from St. Olaf.
Scheibner says, “A huge part of my program was learning about life as a graduate student — and I can’t wait!”