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.

Fantastic Faraway Flyby

If you’re near a TV set or computer tonight, you might want to check out Pluto.  The NASA spacecraft New Horizons will be zooming by and sending back photographs and data that will give us our first good look at the “dwarf planet” at the edge of our solar system.

The New Horizons effort is pretty cool.  Nine years ago the spacecraft, which is about the size of a piano, was launched, and since then it has traveled 2.9 billion miles on its journey.  Today New Horizons is closing in on Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, traveling at a rate of almost 31,000 miles per hour, snapping pictures and using its instruments to gather other data.  Already it has taken the first clear picture of Pluto and Charon, with a focus vastly superior to the indistinct blobs produced by the Hubble space telescope.  Eventually it will get to within 7,600 miles of Pluto’s surface.

With this Pluto flyby, human spacecraft have now visited every planet in our solar system.  We should celebrate that, and also celebrate this:  the New Horizons project is one of the most technologically challenging efforts NASA has ever undertaken.  The spacecraft won’t be able to orbit Pluto, it will approach it edge on and then fly by.  That means that New Horizons, which is traveling on an automated control path, has to hit a “keyhole” in space that’s about 60 miles by 90 miles — a remarkably precise target for a probe that is billions of miles away.  If it misses, we’ll just get pictures of empty space.

Starting at about 8 p.m. tonight, engineering data will tell us whether New Horizon threaded the needle.  You can access the NASA live feed here.

Some days, science and technology can be pretty awesome.  This is one of those days.

To Infinity (Or At Least The Far Edge Of The Solar System)

Those of us over a certain age learned that Pluto was the ninth planet in the solar system, and the one farthest from the SunIn 2006, however, Pluto was “de-planetized,” when the know-it-alls at the International Astronomical Union concluded that Pluto should be relegated to “dwarf planet” status.  Pluto itself could not be reached for comment.

Since it was dissed nine years ago, tiny Pluto has stolidly borne its politically incorrect “dwarf planet” label.  Still, it’s an intriguing object.  It’s tiny (smaller than our Moon), its orbit is different from that of any other planet, it’s unimaginably far away (on average, 3.6 billion miles from the Sun, 40 times farther away than Earth) and its deeply mysterious because we’ve never gotten a good look at it.  Even though Pluto was discovered in 1930, we still don’t have any decent picture of the object.

That’s about to change.  Recently, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft entered its Pluto exploration zone.  It was launched in 2006 and has traveled more than 4 billion miles to get near Pluto.  For most of that time, the spacecraft’s active systems have been “sleeping.”  Now, New Horizons has been awakened, and last Sunday it began to take its  first pictures of Pluto.  It’s closest pass will come in July.

As New Horizons transmits its photos back to Earth, we’ll learn far more about Pluto than we’ve ever known before.  I’m rooting for little Pluto, which has basically been ignored in favor of studies of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars.  I’m hoping that Pluto turns out to be the most fascinating object in the solar system.  Who knows?  Maybe Pluto is small and weird because it’s not a planet at all, but instead an alien spacecraft, or a marker like The Object in 2001.  Probably not . . . but a Plutophile can dream.

In Pluto’s Bad Luck Orbit

Pluto’s had a tough time of it.  It’s the loner of the solar system, orbiting in the cold regions of the Kuiper belt, far away from the warmth of the Sun.  It’s got the same name as one of the more pointless Disney cartoon characters.  Then, in 2006, it was exposed to the sizeist biases of scientists who decided that it should be embarrassingly downgraded from a planet to a “dwarf planet.”

But recently things were looking up for poor Pluto.  Two more moons were discovered in its orbit, bringing its total to five.  In the lunar satellite category, therefore, Pluto kicks the butts of those haughty, full-scale planets like Earth and Venus.  And then a naming contest for the new moons got underway, and people became interested when William Shatner — also known as Captain James T. Kirk, of the starship Enterprise, on Star Trek, the original series — suggested that one of the moons be called Vulcan, after the home world of his fellow Star Trek character Mr. Spock.  Vulcan was the top vote-getter by an overwhelming margin, and Pluto must have thought its luck had really changed for the better:  it would have a moon with a name that people would actually remember and that might, in some far distant time of routine space travel, become a kitschy tourist attraction as a result.

Alas!  Pluto’s luck could not hold.  The International Astronomical Union vetoed Vulcan, concluding that it was used elsewhere in astronomy and that Vulcan, the Greek god of the forge, was not sufficiently associated with Pluto, the god of the Underworld.  So, instead of Vulcan, Pluto will be orbited by Kerberos and Styx.

It must be depressing for Pluto to constantly be reminded of its grim, land of the dead namesake, and it’s got to be even more depressing to now be reminded of a mediocre ’70s rock band.  Cheer up, though, Pluto!  It could be worse!  Your new moon could have been named Kansas.