Haumea is the Hawaiian goddess of creation, and also a dwarf planet in our solar system. It was discovered on December 28th, 2004 by the Keck Telescope (one of the world’s best optical telescopes, located on Mauna Kea on the Big Island [see: stargazing on the Big Island). Because of this, the new dwarf planet was named after the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and childbirth: Haumea.
Haumea, the dwarf planet
The discovery of Haumea is shrouded in controversy. There are two teams of scientists claiming the discovery: An American team and a Spanish team. As of the time of this writing (mid-2013), neither team is officially credited with the discovery. Read more about this controversy.
There are official rules about the naming of objects like Haumea. Haumea is a “classical Kuiper belt object“, and such objects are given mythological names that are associated with creation. Because the Keck Telescope was instrumental (for the American team) to the discovery, the name of the Hawaiian goddess “Haumea” was chosen. The Spanish team had suggested a different name: Ataecina (the Iberian goddess of the underworld).
The shape of Haumea is somewhat extreme. Astronomers found out that it is an ellipse with a size of 1920 x 1540 x 990 km (Lockwood et al. 2014). This shape is consistent with a *very* rapidly rotating object, where the rotation elongates the body.
Haumea is orbited by at least two small icy moons. These moons are called after two daughters of Haumea: “Hiʻiaka” (the patron goddess of the Big Island of Hawaii) and “Namaka” (the goddess of the sea).
Who was Haumea? Hawaiian mythology
Haumea is the guardian goddess of the island of Hawaiʻi. She is identified with Papa, the goddess of the earth and wife of Wākea (space). She is also the goddess of fertility and childbirth, and the mother of Pele, a popular goddess in the Hawaiian mythology [see: mythology of the Big Island].
Myths told of Haumea center about themes concerned with food supply for the life of man and marriage and birth for the increase of the family stock. By rebirths she changes herself from age to youth and returns to marry her children and grandchildren. She lives as a woman in Kalihi valley and transforms herself into a growing tree in which she conceals her husband from those who are leading him away to sacrifice. She secures for a chiefess a painless delivery in childbirth and receives in reward “the tree of changing leaves” out of which gods are made (source). Martha Beckwith has summarized the many stories about Haumea in her excellent book: Hawaiian Mythology (pages 276 – 290. Read online in the Hawaiian electronic library or buy the book on amazon)
Planet or dwarf planet, what is the difference?
Dwarf planets are a pretty recent ‘invention’. Problems in planet-land started when astronomers were finding more and more objects that were very much alike Pluto. Should these new objects also be called a “planet”? If so, estimates are that we would soon have to add up to 50 new planets to our solar system.
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union decided on a new classification scheme: Solar system bodies large enough to have cleared their orbit are defined as planets, while those that have not cleared their orbit (but that are massive enough to be rounded by their own gravity) are dwarf planets.
This also means that Pluto got demoted from planet to dwarf planet.
A sad piece of trivia: between the time Pluto was discovered and its declassification as a planet, it had not even completed one revolution around the sun! (one revolution about the sun of Pluto would be one year on/for Pluto)