Author: msanjose

Trans-Neptunian Objects

This post was originally published in February 2019, in the CNSE Herald, a student newspaper from my undergraduate institution.

Left: The bold and blue Neptune, the last planet in the solar system.
Right: The icy red Pluto, once the last planet, now a dwarf planet.

As children, we learned about the solar system, from the flaming Sun at its center, to the far reaches of the blue gas giant Neptune, along with the former planet called Pluto. But it turns out, there are more mysterious objects within our solar system beyond the reaches of Neptune, comprised of what astronomers call “trans-Neptunian objects.” Pluto is one example; it is obviously beyond Neptune. This special category of minor planets contains many astronomical objects in our own solar system that we still don’t know much about. And enigmatic celestial bodies are always worth investigating.

Pluto, one of the “closest” trans-Neptunian objects, is anywhere from 2.66 billion to 4.67 billion miles from Earth. In comparison, the Earth is 93 million miles from the Sun; roughly two orders of magnitude smaller. Keep in mind, that at that distance, light from the Sun takes a little more than 8 minutes to reach the Earth. In addition, light, in one second, can traverse the entire equator approximately 7.5 times. Needless to say, these Trans-Neptunian objects are quite far out: it took New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft to leave Earth, around 9.5 years to reach Pluto, the closest of these Trans-Neptunian objects. From here, these far-flung bodies will be abbreviated as TNO.

Let’s take a look at select TNOs. Tens of new TNOs have been discovered since Pluto’s discovery in the 1930’s. We will only cover four in this article. You might also want to review the planets of the solar system, just to get an idea of the astronomical scale of celestial objects and their orbits.

Note: Day and year are defined as they are on Earth.


Charon, as imaged by New Horizons.

This TNO is known as the largest of Pluto’s five satellites (more general term for moon). Discovered in 1978, it is named after Charon, a ferryman in Greek mythology who carried souls of recently deceased people into the underworld. It orbits around Pluto about every 6.4 days. Pluto itself revolves around the sun in an oval-like, elliptical orbit every 248 years or so. It is one of only three TNOs imaged up-close by a satellite (the others being dwarf planet Pluto and asteroid Ultima Thule).

Compared to other moons, Charon is quite large in proportion to its parent body, Pluto. Specifically, its diameter is only about half (50%) of Pluto’s, and has about one-eighth (12.5%) the mass. In comparison, the diameter of Earth’s moon is a little more than a quarter (27%) that of the Earth itself, and has about one-hundredth (~1.2%) the mass.

Charon’s north pole contains components of Pluto’s thin atmosphere. These include tholins, organic molecules created by cosmic radiation that may play a role in creating life. Ammonia hydrates and water crystals observed on the surface may be signs of active cryovolcanoes and cryogysters: geologic outlets that erupt volatile compounds like ammonia rather than lava. Such exotic volcanoes can only be found on the coldest reaches of the solar system.


Haumea (center dot) as observed by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.


Artist’s impression of a rotating Haumea

Haumea is an unusual TNO discovered in 2004. It is named after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth. Its mass is about one-third of Pluto’s. Haumea is farther out from the sun than Pluto; it takes 284 years for Haumea to orbit around the sun, unlike Pluto, which takes about 248 years. This TNO is best known for its highly oblong shape for a celestial object. More formally called an ellipsoid, Haumea’s major axis is about twice as long as its minor; in other words, it is two times as long in one dimension as it is in the other. This grape-like shape is believed to be caused by its rapid rotation: a day on Haumea is a little less than 4 hours. This is faster than any known stable object in the solar system.

Like many TNOs, Haumea has a very icy surface. No ammonia hydrates have been detected on it, suggesting an absence of cryovolcanism compared to Charon. Haumea has a small ring surrounding it, somewhat like the (much!) larger planet Saturn. In fact, it was the first TNO observed that had a ring. Like Pluto, Haumea has moons; two in fact.

A colony on Haumea would be the closest mankind will ever get to living on a grape*. Surgery and plasma generation will be insignificant milestones once this is achieved.

90377 Sedna

Left: Sedna as observed by the Hubble telescope. Right: Sedna’s extreme orbit relative to the planets of our solar system.

My personal favorite, Sedna is another icy TNO. It is named after the Inuit goddess of the sea. Sedna’s intrigue comes not from the object itself, but its orbit around the sun. It takes an inconceivable 11,400 years to complete its extremely elliptical orbit. To put that into perspective, 11,400 years ago humans were still in the Stone Age (more specifically the Neolithic era), about 9400 BC. According to telescope observations, Sedna apparently is one of the reddest objects observed, rivaling Mars in regards to color. It’s believed to be smaller than Charon.

The astronomer Michael Brown, who co-discovered Sedna (as well as Haumea), thinks Sedna has immense scientific value due to this extreme orbit. By understanding how its orbit was formed along with the planet itself, scientists could learn a lot about what the early solar system looked like. Sedna’s orbit has also been mentioned in the context of some rather interesting theories about the outer solar system, referring to the space beyond even Sedna’s exceptionally long reach. One such theory proposes the existence of an even more mysterious “Nemesis” companion star to our Sun (thus making our solar system a binary system), responsible not only for Sedna’s formation but also Earth’s mass extinctions from asteroid or comet impacts.

Sedna will reach perihelion (or the closest something ever reaches the sun) around 2076, where it will be about 7.10 billion miles out. Recall that Pluto is 2.66 billion to 4.67 billion miles away from the sun. A mission to Sedna could take about ~25 years at the shortest; the satellite would launch anytime between 2033 and 2046. Such a mission may be one of the most profound scientific investigations into space conducted yet. Only once every 11 millennia would humanity be able to directly observe an object that usually resides inconceivably far from our own planet Earth. Who knows what stories Sedna has yet to tell?

One thing’s for sure, Sedna would be a great place to put a time capsule. Or a prison.


Left: Eris (center dot) as observed by the Hubble telescope.
Right: Artist’s impression of Eris.

Eris, named after the Greek goddess of strife, is technically the most massive TNO observed to date. Discovered in 2005, Eris is very similar in size to Pluto (its diameter is only a few tens of kilometers smaller) and has a elliptical orbit like Sedna (though not to that extreme). It orbits the sun every 558 years. Eris’ previous name was Xena, named after the protagonist in Xena: Warrior Princess. Eris has a moon named Dysnomia, after the Greek goddess of lawlessness.

At the time, Pluto was considered a planet, so Eris was, for a time, the solar system’s tenth planet. After 2006, Eris joined Pluto as a fellow dwarf planet. Eris has about 27% more mass than Pluto, despite being slightly smaller. This suggests that Eris is largely comprised of rocky materials, more so than Pluto. In addition, Eris appears mostly white compared to Pluto.

Concluding Statements

These are only four of the many TNOs discovered to date. Some of them have names; others are just numbers and letters. Observing TNOs seem to be the stepping stone to characterizing, and understanding what lies beyond our inner solar system. Not to mention, all the objects beyond our solar system. Objects that would take tens, to thousands, to ten-thousands of human lifetimes just to reach, even if travelling at the speed of light. It is surely humbling to think about.

On a side note, TNOs seem like they are great, novel settings to science fiction. I wonder what life on a Sedna colony would be like.


I do not own any of the graphics I used for this article.

Information and Graphics Sources:

The TNOs’ wikipedia pages,,, NASA


*This sentence has not aged well, unlike a grape used for winemaking.

Reflections From Oregon

This post was originally published in October 2018 for the CNSE Herald, a student newspaper from my undergraduate institution.

Over the summer of 2018, I had the privilege of staying in the greater Portland area, in Oregon, for a summer assignment for a semiconductor company there (Hint: It’s not Intel). The trip marked several personal milestones, most important being the longest I’ve been away from home alone (13 weeks, nearly 3000 miles away!).

As expected of such an ambitious trip, I learned quite a few things that I’d like to share. To start, it would seem like an experience of this kind would be wholly positive, given that I essentially got a subsidized vacation to a state I once knew only by name, and a cross-country road trip. And it was nice. Especially escaping the humidity of New York summers! But sometimes you will learn things that, while not entirely positive or negative, can make life more complicated.

  • What is best for you may not be what you want

I like to think that most people want what’s best for them. Indeed, for most of my life, what was best for me was closely linked to what I wanted. My time in Oregon seemed like it would be no different: I’d be working for a good company with great compensation to boot; I’d be in a state known for its natural beauty. And both of those things were what I wanted, and what was best for me.

However, into the summer, I realized there were things I wanted, that were different from what was best for me. I was hired because of my experience working with semiconductor equipment from my previous job. However, during the assignment I found that I barely used any of my vacuum system knowledge (although I did see plenty of vacuum systems there). To my employer’s credit, it was a manufacturing site, and any mistake on these expensive chambers would needlessly cost the company tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars. Instead, my skills were transferred to projects involving installing auxiliary safety equipment for the manufacturing equipment, to be used during maintenance procedures.

I definitely do not think the projects were meaningless or mundane. Safety is #1 in the semiconductor industry (as it should be), and these projects were still real engineering projects at their core, with real engineering challenges, with real business impacts. But I wanted to do more direct work on the fabrication of devices themselves; helping develop unit processes, or design new process flows, or maybe even design the nanostructures themselves*. Projects closer to nanoscale engineering, rather than mechanical engineering. As much as I wanted to do such tasks, I had a stronger track record working on equipment than in process. It was best for me to be delegated to an equipment role; past performance is a pretty reliable indicator of future results. A less risky gamble for the company looking to hire.

In regards to post-college options, working in true nanoscale engineering also requires graduate education; a possibly long and painful continuation of school, with greater uncertainty**. A career in equipment engineering, as I learned during my summer assignment, does not necessarily require this sacrifice. In addition, the company is known to pay well and treat their employees well. Some of the engineers have been with the company for over two decades, as equipment engineering is a stable career path. This is especially important given the infamous volatility of the semiconductor industry, where you can go through multiple cycles of hiring and firing within just a decade. Becoming an equipment engineer would be best for me in terms of financial stability, yet I want to pursue graduate education, as it would allow me to fully utilize my degree and pursue my intellectual interests.

And when graduate school can take half a decade to finish, choosing what’s best for me versus what I want is not exactly trivial.

  • It’s easier than you’d think to let yourself go, especially on your own

Like anyone with the prospect of travelling to some distant land, I was excited by the novelty and opportunity awaiting me. Oregon is a state known for its natural beauty, and the Portland area is known for its hipster culture, music scene, and restaurants. I thought about all the cool mountains to hike, natural formations to visit, concerts to watch, and people to meet.

Yet, for the first two weeks or so, I simply stayed in my apartment when I wasn’t at work. Doing exactly what I would do if I was still in New York in the summer. Nothing. The only difference was the room I was in, geographically speaking. I thought that the full experience of a new environment would passively diffuse into me, and that I’d immediately begin enjoying everything. Not so.

I had to make a conscious, and sometimes concentrated, effort to keep my summer from just being a repetitive cycle of work and home. Oregon definitely had its allure, but I had to look for it. It was so much easier to just wake up, go to work, get back from work, loaf around, then sleep, and repeat. The weekends would just be the same, minus work. It was so much easier to let myself go.

Eventually I came to my senses and realized I’d let this opportunity go to waste if I did nothing. So I started small and looked for good hiking spots for the weekend. I found myself visiting the beautiful Oregon coastline, hiking around Mt. Hood, and exploring the Ape Caves in Washington State. A lot of these destinations were a non-trivial distance away from my apartment; at least 90 minutes to be exact. But it was worth it; I saw natural sights you’d be hard pressed to find on the Eastern seaboard, let alone within reasonable driving distance of Albany. I saw some cool things along the way; bucolic two-lane roads nestled in lush evergreen forests, a dairy product factory complete with its own visitors center and museum, tons of green crosses, and a roadside shop with an inconceivable variety of beef jerky. Oregon truly is a unique place. I still think about those views from the coast a lot.

And to think I wouldn’t have experienced any of that if I didn’t muster the millijoules of energy required to search up places of interest. I could have squandered a wholesome opportunity that summer because it is easier to be lazy, than happy. Especially so when there’s no parents or friends to drag you places. Left to my own devices (literally), I found it difficult to resist the temptation to do nothing. I figured that once you set that lethargic routine, perhaps when you begin living alone for the first time, it can be extremely hard to break. You could spend years living in the most exciting place in the world, but never get to enjoy any of it because habits are hard to break. It’s a good thought to keep in the back of your mind, especially in the age of smartphones and other addictive media.

Now, I’m not saying you need to visit a bunch of places in a region to take full advantage of it, but when you travel cross country to a state known for its natural sights, it’s a huge waste to not to.

  • Final Thoughts

As cool as it would have been to say I hiked to a peak of the mountain and found the secrets of the universe, that certainly did not happen. But I did learn a few things that I think would make anyone better off the in the long run. If you know what you want isn’t necessarily what is best for you, then deciding between the two will definitely require a more thorough evaluation, and second opinions. If you know that it is easier to let yourself go, all the more reason to spice up a stagnant lifestyle, whatever you want that to mean.

  • *Little did I know how laborious this actually is. (cries in high contact resistance)
  • **I knew what I was getting myself into, and yet here I am anyway