Santa Claus is Coming to the Solar System

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 25 2013 8:00 AM

Santa Clausteroid

It’s Christmas morning, so by now you’ve probably heard someone in your family telling you that the yule log, Christmas tree, festive lights, and half a dozen other holiday traditions aren’t actually Christian in origin but were absorbed by the religion from a bunch of different cultures.

That’s fine; most traditions we celebrate today have evolved one way or another over the centuries. But I learned a new one this week that really surprised me. It’s about Santa, and it’s amazing: Santa is not a jolly old elf with a white beard and red suit. He’s actually a 35-kilometer wide asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter!

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And I have proof:

asteroid Santa
Asteroids sleigh me.

Photo by NASA/WISE/Amy Mainzer

That’s an image from NASA’s WISE spacecraft, which observes in the infrared. You can see stars and galaxies as blue (actually, light at about 3 microns, roughly five times the wavelength the human eye can see), and on the left a series of red dots. That’s Santa! Actually, 1288 Santa (1933 QM), the asteroid’s official name. The picture was posted yesterday by my friend Amy Mainzer, who is the principal investigator of NEOWISE—that’s the name of the mission now that it’s been rededicated to hunt for near-Earth objects.

Santa is no threat to us, though; it orbits the Sun at a distance of about 435 million kilometers (270 million miles), far, far from Earth. The picture is actually a composite of several exposures, and Santa moves a bit between each as it orbits the Sun, which is why it looks like a series of dots. But why does it look red?

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Actually, in visible light Santa is darker than a lump of coal! Many asteroids only reflect about 3-5 percent of the sunlight that hits them, about the same amount as coal. But that means it absorbs a lot of sunlight, warming it—if a temperature of about -90 C (-130 F), way colder than even the North Pole, can be considered “warm”—and at that temperature it glows in the infrared, at a wavelength of about 20 microns where WISE can see it. Traditionally, that color is designated red in WISE pictures, which is why Santa looks the way it does in the image.

Unless, of course, that’s actually a red suit. Or, as Amy noted to me, it’s Rudolph’s nose!

Either way, and whatever your beliefs or lack thereof, I hope you have a good holiday. May you have clear skies and boundless wonder for the Universe.

Tip o’ the white puffball-tipped red tuque to Amy, who spent time on the day before Christmas chatting with me about this. Oh, and note: She found a total of 11 asteroids in the picture. One more and I could’ve titled this post “The Twelve Asteroids of Christmas”. But honestly, I hoped she’d only find two more besides Santa. Then it would’ve been “Three WISE Asteroids”.