It’s still too early to start thinking about a proper name for this strange new theoretical world, but scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) insist they have solid evidence for a giant, Neptune-size planet orbiting the sun in a bizarre and highly elongated orbit about 10 times farther from the sun than Pluto.
Speculation about a large Planet X roaming the outer solar system has surfaced before, only this time was different. This time the scientific paper that published in The Astronomical Journal was submitted by Caltech Professor Mike Brown and Assistant Professor Konstantin Batygin, who know a thing or two about hunting down illusive objects in the solar system’s outer reaches.
Brown and his Caltech colleagues have teamed up to famously discover a number of distant Trans Neptunian Objects (TNOs) frigidly residing in the Kuiper belt, a vast, icy region of space that is roughly 20 times as wide and 20 to 200 times more massive than the objects orbiting the sun in the more familiar asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. So when Brown has something to say the astronomical community can, for the most part, be relied upon to listen.
Brown is the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech, the private university Forbes magazine described as one of the top universities in the world for science and engineering. He has been a faculty member since 1996 and in 2007 received the school’s most prestigious teaching honor, the Richard P. Feynman Award. Other awards that have come his way include the Urey Prize for the best young planetary scientist from the Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences, and the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics from the Kavli Foundation.
In 2006 the Caltech astronomer was named one of the Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. And in 2014 he was inducted into the National Academy of Science, an accomplishment that singles him out as a highly credible witness and a respected expert in his field.
Brown is best known for his January, 2005 discovery of Eris, a distant Kuiper belt object that is slightly smaller than Pluto and twice its distance from the Sun. At the time Pluto was still counted among the nine known planets so Eris was hailed as the solar system’s 10th planet. Only not for long. The discovery of Eris – and the suspicion that similar objects would no doubt be found silently coursing elsewhere in the Kuiper belt – led to the debate and eventual demotion of Pluto from a real planet to a “dwarf” by members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). To drive this point home Brown and his colleagues went on to discover several new Kuiper belt “dwarf” planets with exotic sounding names, like Makemake, Humea, Orcus, Quaoar, and Sedna.
The Caltech astronomer is the author of more than 100 scientific papers, and stories about his discoveries have appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the globe. For the general public he authored “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming,” an award-winning bestselling memoir of the discoveries leading to the demotion of Pluto, the solar system’s ninth planet. Brown supported the IAU’s position but didn’t fully anticipate what the public’s reaction to Pluto’s demotion would be.
Perhaps with a tinge of guilt, Brown is staking his considerable professional reputations on the presumed existence of Pluto’s replacement, what he, Batygin and others call Planet Nine. According to their best estimate Planet Nine is perhaps 10 times more massive than Earth or roughly half as massive as Neptune. The planet is very far out with a wildly elliptical orbit; it comes no closer to the sun than about 250 astronomical units and at its farthest is between 600 and 1,200 (an astronomical unit is the distance from the sun to Earth, or 93 million miles). In contrast Jupiter is five astronomical units from the sun and Pluto, on average, about 40.
The New Yorker magazine put the distances in perspective. If the sun were on Fifth Avenue the Earth would be one block west and Pluto would be in Montclair, New Jersey. Planet Nine would be somewhere near Cleveland.
700-to-One Long Shot
Brown and Batygin were not the first to suggest that the orbits of Eris, Sedna and other Kuiper belt objects were being influenced by a more massive and distant “perturber.” But they were first to statistically demonstrate that it’s a 700-to-one long shot that the orbits and alignments of Eris, Sedna and the others would be the way astronomers now observe them if there were no Planet Nine out there gravitationally tugging, pulling and rearranging their orbital trajectories.
It is estimated that it takes Planet Nine about 15,000 years to orbit the sun. If the planet exists as many believe, the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kay in Hawaii should be able to see it, Brown says. But there’s lot of sky to cover and it could take five or more years to locate the distant wanderer. That we already know so much about it without ever laying eyes on it speaks volumes about the genius, vision and chutzpah of Brown and his Caltech associates.
Since the astronomers went public with their well researched calculations on Planet Nine a number of other experts have weighed in with informed opinions about the theoretical planet’s presumed physical characteristics and origins – as if its existence already was fait accompli. For most observers it’s not so much a matter of if Planet Nine is out there but when it will actually be seen for the first time.
Having been fooled before, a few hard-nosed skeptics remain leery about mystery planet claims of any kind. And at least one expert might conceivably believe that calling the theoretical planet the ninth planet in the solar system may be a bit premature. According to a report by Tech Insider, Princeton University professor Jacob J. McComas says scientists are beginning to wonder if there’s a need to reclassify Pluto once again.
McComas is a professor of Astrophysical Science and Vice President for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He cites a bonanza of new data from the July 2015 New Horizons fly-by that suggests Pluto “may not be a dwarf planet after all.”
Before the New Horizons spacecraft visit last July astronomers already knew that Pluto had five moons, including one moon (Charon) that is larger than some dwarf planets. But other surprises were in store. For example, the spacecraft photographed a thin atmosphere around Pluto. As the solar wind whips past the planet at 1 million mph it creates a giant tail unlike anything seen elsewhere in the solar system, McComas said.
“It was suspected that Pluto would have a soft, gentle tail like a comet, or it would be diverted abruptly like we see on Mars, which also has a thin atmosphere of gasses. But Pluto is different. Astronomers have visited and studied the interactions of the solar wind with all of the classic planets and have not seen anything like this. Pluto appears to be a comet – planet hybrid.
“We may need to come up with another category for this baffling planet,” he added.
Most likely, the IAU will remain dead set against reinstating Pluto to full planetary status, no matter how much anyone complains about the injustice of it all. For what it’s worth, the astrological community has not been fooled and continues to treat powerhouse Pluto with the awe and respect it deserves. Also, it can reasonably be assumed that the community is looking forward to assimilating Mike Brown’s new theoretical planet into the growing and expanding awareness system that informs astrology today.