Planet 9 may be closer and easier to find than you think, if it exists

One of the solar system’s most intriguing mysteries is whether a large, frozen planet lives in the outer regions of our cosmic neighborhood, well beyond Neptune’s orbit. This hypothetical world, dubbed “Planet Nine” by some of the scientists looking for it, has sparked controversy since its first proposal.

The invisible planet should exist on the basis of its apparent gravitational influence on a group of small objects with strange, clustered orbits. But so far, its research has remained empty, and critics argue that the clues to its presence are just ghosts in the data.

Now, a new analysis predicts that if it’s there, this stealthy planet might be closer, brighter, and easier to spot than previously estimated.

Instead of orbiting our star once every 18,500 years, astronomers calculate that it revolves around the sun in about 7,400 years. This narrower orbit brings it much closer to the sun than expected, which means Planet Nine may appear brighter to terrestrial telescopes.

“I think it’s a year or two after it’s been found,” says Mike Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology and author of the new study, which was accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal. But, he adds, “I have made this statement every year for the past five years. I am super optimistic.

Brown’s latest analyzes of Planet Nine’s gravitational shenanigans, calculated with his Caltech colleague Konstantin Batygin, suggest the world is about six times the size of Earth, which would likely make it a rocky super-Earth or mini-Earth. Neptune gas. If discovered, the planet would be the first large world to join the group of solar system figures since 1846, when astronomers announced the discovery of Neptune, an ice giant whose presence was predicted by its gravitational influence on Uranus.

But over the years, skeptics have suggested that the gravitational signatures betraying the presence of Planet Nine are nothing more than observational artifacts. The apparent clustering of the orbits of distant objects does not reflect the influence of an invisible world, argue critics, and is rather the result of natural biases in the sky readings.

“Most of these objects are discovered with large telescopes that have limited time for studies of the outer solar system, and they look where they can look, which depends on where they are,” explains Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona, who is agnostic about the existence of the planet and is working on his own estimates of where it is. Astronomers have only discovered a handful of these distant objects so far, and without a more complete census of the outer solar system, it’s hard to say whether these little icy objects are really behaving strangely or are being distributed randomly.

In the meantime, to help the researchers, Brown and Batygin used their revised calculations to create a “treasure map” that points to a strip of sky where planet nine is most likely to be found. This area cuts across the densely populated glittering plane of the Milky Way, which may have helped the planet hide in previous research.

“Now we really know where to look and where not to look,” says Brown. “It should – unless we’ve done something wrong. “

The ghost planets of the distant solar system

Brown and Batygin initially announced their Planet Nine prediction in 2016, but the couple are not the first to suggest that an unknown world is lurking in the backcountry of the Solar System. For more than a century, astronomers have thought about such a planet, mistakenly believing that something heavy was disturbing Neptune’s orbit. Astronomer Percival Lowell called the world Planet X and was so determined to find it that he left a million dollars to fund further research after his death in 1916. (In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh of the Lowell Observatory found little Pluto instead.)

The Caltech team based their prediction of Planet Nine’s existence on how it apparently disrupts a group of Kuiper Belt, or KBO, objects. These little icy worlds beyond Neptune include a population of objects with extreme orbits that take them at least 150 times farther from the sun than Earth’s orbit.

In 2016, Batygin and Brown examined six such objects, whose oblong and tilted orbital paths have baffled scientists for years. The team concluded that an invisible planet about 10 times the size of Earth must gravitationally guide objects on their catawampus trajectories. The planet’s estimated mass is between Earth and Neptune, making it a type of world that appears to be common across the galaxy, based on surveys of planets orbiting other stars, yet is clearly absent from our own solar system.

Soon after the announcement, however, astronomers began to question the planet nine hypothesis. The main one of their concerns was that the particular grouping of orbits might not group together at all. Instead, over the past five years, several teams using a variety of datasets have repeatedly concluded that the evidence pointing to Planet Nine is nothing more than an observational artifact.

Maybe Planet Nine is an apparition, its supposed gravitational work is a fake signature created by a small number of deceptive data points. Astronomers are still working to resolve the controversy, and this latest analysis by Brown and Batygin is an attempt to do so.

“It’s their good to have made a detailed prediction and released it,” says Michele Bannister of the University of Canterbury, whose work challenged the planet nine hypothesis in 2017. This will be a fun solar system to experience.

Refine the search

Brown and Batygin based their latest predictions of Planet Nine’s size and orbit on a slightly different set of objects. Some of the original KBOs remain in their dataset, but the team added new ones and discarded any objects whose orbits appeared to be influenced by Neptune’s gravity. In the end, they worked with 11 KBOs.

“If you include those from Neptune, you’ll jam your signal and not know what’s going on,” Brown says.

The new study reveals that there is a 99.6% chance that the particular orbital alignments of these objects are the work of an invisible planet and not of chance. Sounds pretty good, Malhotra says, but it does mean there’s a one in 250 chance the rosters will be fluke, which is way higher than the 10,000 chance reported by Brown and Batygin in 2016.

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