Popular Astronomy

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Fri, 22 Jan 2016 - Discovery of a new planet in our Solar System?

Is there really a new ninth major planet out in the remote depths of the solar system? If you follow the popular media you might certainly believe such a planet has been discovered but the truth is a little more complicated. Two scientists for the California Institute for Technology, Cal-Tec, have been studying anomalies in the orbits of six remote Kuiper-Belt objects and have inferred, through computer modelling, that the objects have been shepherded into their strange elliptical orbits by the gravitational influence of a large planet, somewhere between five and fifteen Earth-masses out in the remote depths of our solar system. There is historical precedence for this kind of inference; the planet Neptune was discovered, close to its predicted position, after mathematical analysis of anomalies in the orbit of Uranus in the mid-19th Century.

The two scientists, Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin say that a body of ten Earth-masses in a highly elliptical orbit produces the best results within their computer-model for explaining the motion of the six studied Kuiper Belt objects. This new body, if it is eventually proven to exist, would be orbiting between seven and twenty times further out from the Sun than Neptune and attempts to find it will be made with the Subaru telescope on Hawaii. Mike Brown has been referred to as “the planet slayer” after his 2005 discovery of Eris and the subsequent demotion of Pluto from full planet-status to that of a ‘Dwarf Planet’; he relates those events in his book ‘How I Killed Pluto’.

The prediction, while very exiting, is still only a prediction made by a computer model unless something more solid is eventually discovered; so it should not yet be treated as a true discovery, merely as a very exiting possibility!


Added by: Alan Clitherow