Extraordinary Orbit Points to Planet Nine

May 17, 2018

Astronomers argue that there’s an undiscovered giant planet far beyond the orbit of Neptune. A newly discovered rocky body has added evidence to the circumstantial case for it.

In early 2016, two planetary scientists declared that a ghost planet is hiding in the depths of the solar system, well beyond the orbit of Pluto. Their claim, which they made based on the curious orbits of distant icy worlds, quickly sparked a race to find this so-called Planet Nine — a planet that is estimated to be about 10 times the mass of Earth. “It has a real magnetism to it,” said Gregory Laughlin, an astronomer at Yale University. “I mean, finding a 10-Earth-mass planet in our own solar system would be a discovery of unrivaled scientific magnitude.”

Now, astronomers are reporting that they have spotted another distant world — perhaps as large as a dwarf planet — whose orbit is so odd that it is likely to have been shepherded by Planet Nine. The object confirms a specific prediction made by Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown, the astronomers at the California Institute of Technology who first argued for Planet Nine’s existence. “It’s not proof that Planet Nine exists,” said David Gerdes, an astronomer at the University of Michigan and a co-author on the new paper. “But I would say the presence of an object like this in our solar system bolsters the case for Planet Nine.”

Gerdes and his colleagues spotted the new object in data from the Dark Energy Survey, a project that probes the acceleration in the expansion of the universe by surveying a region well above the plane of the solar system. This makes it an unlikely tool for finding objects inside the solar system, since they mostly orbit within the plane. But that is exactly what makes the new object unique: Its orbit is tilted 54 degrees with respect to the plane of the solar system. It’s something Gerdes did not expect to see. Batygin and Brown, however, predicted it.

Two years ago, Batygin and Brown made a case for Planet Nine’s existence based on the peculiar orbits of a handful of distant worlds known as Kuiper belt objects. That small population loops outward toward the same quadrant of the solar system, a phenomenon that would be extremely unlikely to happen by chance. Batygin and Brown argued that a ninth planet must be shepherding those worlds into their strange orbits.

What’s more, Batygin and Brown also predicted that over time, Planet Nine’s gravity would push these Kuiper belt objects out of their current plane and into ever-higher orbital inclinations. Although astronomers have already spotted a bizarre population of worlds that orbit the sun perpendicularly to the plane of the solar system, they had never caught an object transitioning between the two populations. “There’s no real way to put something on an orbit like that — except that it’s exactly what we predicted from Planet Nine,” Brown said. Batygin notes that the new object fits so perfectly with their model that it almost looks like one of the data points in their simulations. “A good theory reproduces data — but a great theory predicts new data,” he said.

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