Astronomers have discovered something . . . unusual out by Neptune, the massive planet on the far fringes of the solar system. As one scientist put it, with the discovery “the outer solar system just got a lot weirder.”
They’ve found an object out there that behaves unlike anything else. Where Earth, Mars, and the other planets in our solar system travel on a flat plane in relation to the Sun, this object, and the cluster of other objects around it, doesn’t. The Trans-Neptunian Object, nicknamed “Niku” after the Chinese word for rebellious, orbits in a plane that is tilted 110 degrees in relation to the plane of the planets. Even more weirdly, it orbits the sun in the opposite direction of almost everything else in the solar system. The TNO is tiny — about 124 miles in diameter — and is 160,000 time fainter than Neptune.
So what is the TNO, exactly, and why is it behaving so weirdly? Scientists think it must have been knocked off course, either by the gravitational effects of some unknown, massive object, but they’ve found no evidence of that so far. And, of course, there will be people who wonder whether the TNO isn’t following the rules of the rest of the solar system because it actually isn’t part of the solar system at all — it’s some huge ship, or beacon, or some other indicator of extraterrestrial intelligence.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if America hadn’t put the brakes on its space program after the Apollo flights ended, and had spent the last 45 years perfecting interplanetary travel, building bases, and taking humanity out into the rest of the solar system. In that alternative world, we might have been in a position to send a ship out to check out Niku, and see just how rebellious — or unusual — it really is.