Researchers Find Evidence of a Ninth Planet (For Real This Time)

Wednesday, 20 January 2016 - 12:44PM
Solar System
Wednesday, 20 January 2016 - 12:44PM
Researchers Find Evidence of a Ninth Planet (For Real This Time)
For the first time since Neptune was discovered over a century and a half ago, scientists may have discovered another planet in our solar system. Depending on whom you ask, our solar system already has nine planets, as some planetary scientists contend that Pluto is still a planet. But according to this Caltech study, another planetary body has been found, and if it turns out to exist, there will be no confusion, as it would be "the most planet-y of the planets in the whole solar system." 

The planet, if it is, in fact, real, is gigantic, at 5,000 times the mass of Pluto. It orbits the Sun at approximately 20 times the distance of Neptune's orbit, which is 2.8 billion miles away. As a result, its days and years are exponentially longer than ours; the researchers estimate that one year on the object, aptly nicknamed Planet Nine, would last 10,000-20,000 Earth years. There would be no question that Planet Nine is a bonafide planet; not only is it too large to be a dwarf, but it gravitationally dominates a large surrounding area, larger, in fact, than any other planet in the solar system.

Opening quote
"This would be a real ninth planet," co-author Mike Brown said in a statement. "There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It's a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that's still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting."
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Planet Nine has not been directly observed, but has been modeled mathematically and is consistent with many tangible observations. It was discovered when Brown and his colleagues observed that six of the most distant objects in the Kuiper Belt followed the same elliptical orbit, orbiting around the same point in space. The odds of this are extremely long, approximately one in 100.

Opening quote
"It's almost like having six hands on a clock all moving at different rates, and when you happen to look up, they're all in exactly the same place," said Brown.
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In addition, the tilt of all of the objects' orbits was uniform, pointing approximately 30 degrees downward, which makes the probability of a chance occurrence even smaller: about .007 percent. Using mathematical simulations, the researchers determined that the only explanation that accounted for this phenomenon was a massive planet with an anti-aligned orbit, which means that its closest approach to the Sun is 180 degrees across from all other planets in the solar system, including Earth.

Opening quote
"Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there," said co-author Konstantin Batygin. "For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system's planetary census is incomplete."
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