Scientists from the California Institute of Technology (CALTECH) have claimed that there is a ninth planet in our Solar System, orbiting far beyond even the dwarf planet of Pluto.
Although there have not been any direct observations to confirm the presence of such a world, the CALTECH astronomers have based their claims on how 13 far-flung objects in the Solar System are seen to move.
The 13 icy objects, found in the outlying Kuiper belt (in the same region of space where Pluto lies) shared some unusual orbital features that could be explained by the presence of a small planet.
In particular, the researchers found that six of the 13 Kuiper belt objects moved on orbits that headed in the same direction, particularly two of the larger ones, known as Sedna and 2012 VP113.
Compared with the orbital plane of Earth and the other planets, all of these objects’ orbits were tilted downward, and at about the same angle. Also, their orbits – including their perihelia, the points at which each object came closest to the Sun – were clustered fairly close together, rather than being randomly distributed.
The research team subsequently carried out simulations to see whether the Kuiper belt may hold enough rocky debris from the birth of the Solar System to put the objects into the same orbit.
Instead, they showed that for this to occur, the belt would need to be 100 times larger that it actually is. Armed with this finding, the scientists calculated that there was only a 0.007 % possibility that these tightly clustered orbits arose by chance.
The more that they crunched the numbers, the more convinced the research team became that a massive planet was not just possible but highly likely.
The new icy world, nicknamed ‘Planet Nine,’ is 10 times larger than Earth, but still miniscule compared to the Solar System’s gas giants. It moves on an extremely elongated orbit, and takes a staggering 10, 000 to 20, 000 years to orbit once around the sun.
The reason why we have been unable to see it is simply because it is so far away. The closest it comes to the Sun is 15 times the distance to Pluto and then it heads into uncharted territory, 75 times further out than Pluto (or 93 billion miles from the Sun). A ray of light from the Sun would take one full week to reach Planet Nine.
However this doesn’t mean that we are unable to find Planet Nine. “There are many telescopes on the Earth that actually have a chance of being able to find it,” said Dr Mike Brown, one of the research leads at CALTECH. “I’m really hoping that as we announce this, people will start a worldwide search to go find this Ninth Planet.”
Regardless of the CALTECH simulations, many astronomers and experts remain skeptical, including NASA’s Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, who insists that there has to be telescopic evidence before a definitive ruling on Planet Nine’s existence can be made.
Though arguably the most ironic aspect of this entire discovery is that Dr Brown is the astronomer who became infamous in 2005 when many held him and his work responsible for Pluto’s demotion from being the officially recognised ninth planet in the Solar System. Pluto is now classed as just a dwarf planet.