Along with fellow dwarf planets Pluto and Haumea, Makemake is located in the Kuiper Belt, a region outside the orbit of Neptune. Astronomers believe it is slightly smaller than Pluto. It takes 310 Earth years for this dwarf planet to make one orbit around our Sun.
Astronomers found signs of frozen nitrogen on Makemake's surface. Frozen ethane and methane have also been detected on the surface. Astronomers believe the methane may actually be present in pellets as large as one centimeter in diameter. They found evidence of tholins, molecules that form whenever solar ultraviolet light interacts with substances such as ethane and methane. Tholins usually cause a reddish-brown color and Makemake does have a reddish color in observations.
Makemake holds an important place in the solar system because it -- along with Eris -- was one of the objects whose discovery prompted the International Astronomical Union to reconsider the definition of a planet and to create the new group of dwarf planets.
Makemake was first observed in March 2005 by M.E. Brown, C.A. Trujillo, and D.L. Rabinowitz at the Palomar Observatory. Its unofficial codename was Easterbunny. It was officially recognized as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union in 2008.
How Makemake Got its Name:
Originally designated 2005 FY9, Makemake (pronounced mah-kee-mah-kee) is named after the god of fertility in Rapanui mythology. The Rapanui are the native people of Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean about 3,600 km off the coast of Chile. He was the chief god of the Tangata manu bird-man cult and was worshiped in the form of sea birds, which were his incarnation. His material symbol was a man with a bird's head.
"We consider the naming of objects in the solar system very carefully," said Mike Brown, part of the discovery team. "Makemake's surface is covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice, which is scientifically fascinating, but really not easily relatable to terrestrial mythology. Suddenly, it dawned on me: the island of Rapa Nui. Why hadn't I thought of this before? I wasn't familiar with the mythology of the island so I had to look it up, and I found Makemake, the chief god, the creator of humanity, and the god of fertility. I am partial to fertility gods; Eris, Makemake, and (Haumea) were all discovered as my wife was pregnant with our daughter. I have the distinct memory of feeling this fertile abundance pouring out of the entire universe. Makemake was part of that."