Searching For Planet X

Astronomers want to know what’s out there beyond the orbit of Pluto, the tiny world that once was deemed a full-fledged planet but now is classified with the non-PC designation of a “dwarf planet.”  Specifically, they want to know whether, far past Pluto’s orbit, the gigantic and provocatively named “Planet X” lurks in the dark interstellar void.  And now they are beginning to find evidence that suggests that Planet X may actually exist.

181002095442-01-planet-x-super-teaseIn 2015, researchers at Caltech concluded that there was mathematical evidence that there was a “Planet X” that followed a long, elongated orbit at the far outer reaches of the solar system.  The Caltech team used data about the unique orbits of certain objects in the solar system, applied advanced equations and computer simulations, and hypothesized that the orbits were being affected by the gravity of a large planet with a mass about 10 times the mass of Earth that followed an orbit about 20 times farther from the Sun than Neptune.  The hypothetical planet was called “Planet X,” or “Planet 9.”  (Either planet name, in my view, would fit well in the title of a ’50s sci-fi thriller beginning with The Creature From . . . .)  The hypothetical planet won’t get an official name, by the way, until it is actually discovered and its existence is confirmed.

So far, there is no visual evidence that Planet X exists.  This week, however, astronomers from the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center announced that they have verified the existence of a 200-mile wide rock orbiting billions of miles beyond the orbit of Pluto.  They found the object using telescopes in Hawaii, Chile, and Arizona, and the existence of the object is consistent with the Planet X theory.  In fact, one of the astronomers said:  “These distant objects are like bread crumbs leading us to Planet X.”

The Bread Crumbs Leading To Planet X wouldn’t be a bad name for a sci-fi thriller, either.  Either way, it’s good to know that scientists are out there looking for evidence of whether we should add a long-lost, distant cousin to our solar system family.

The Weirdness Out By Neptune

371eface00000578-3734507-image-a-2_1470933625908Astronomers 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.