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.

Selling Reading

IMG_0854Schools are always trying to come up with things to make kids want to read.  I’m not sure any of it works — kids either pick up the love of reading or they don’t, and the summer reading clubs or painted signs or gold stars don’t seem to make much difference one way or the other — but I had to hand it to the unknown artists at the school down the block who came up with a flying saucer, a space shuttle and boosters and representations of all of the planet in the solar system.

One question:  does anybody use the phrase “out of this world” anymore?

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.

Voyager 1, In “Cosmic Purgatory”

Someday soon, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft will reach a milestone.  Somewhere out beyond the orbits of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, 11 billion miles from the Sun, Voyager 1 is getting ready to pass the outer boundaries of our solar system and enter into a region of interstellar space that scientists have dubbed “cosmic purgatory.”

Consider this:  Voyager 1 was launched in 1977.   When its mission began, Jimmy Carter was President, disco was king, the Vietnam War was fresh in everyone’s memory, and I hadn’t even celebrated my 21st birthday.  A lot has happened in the intervening years, but all the while Voyager 1 has steadily journeyed through the solar system, exploring Jupiter and Saturn and otherwise performing its mission.  It’s still doing so, nearly 35 years later, moving at 11 miles per second and continuing to transmit data about the the solar wind and other conditions in the outer reaches of the solar system.

Voyager 1 will now venture out into unknown regions of the Milky Way, broadcasting its signal and becoming the first man-made object to leave the reaches of our solar system.  It will continue to broadcast until its power and fuel run out — which is not expected to happen until at least 2020.  Maybe disco will be back in vogue by then.

Sowing Earthlife

Those who are intrigued by the possibility of extraterrestrial life may be interested in a study that indicates that Earth itself could have been the source of life on other planets and moons in our solar system.

The study looked at the dispersion of debris from asteroid impacts on the Earth’s surface.  It found that such debris is far more likely to reach Mars, or even Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, than was previously thought.  If such debris contained small life forms, they therefore could have reached other places that are capable of sustaining life.  Of course, any microbes and other organisms on the debris would have to be hardy enough to survive years of travel through space, exposure to radiation, the fall to the surface of another planet, and the different atmospheres and living conditions on those planets — but we know that there are organisms that can survive such conditions, and we also know that life is tenacious and is found in even the most hostile and extreme climates on Earth.

We won’t know, of course, whether this scenario could actually have produced life elsewhere until we find such life and test it.  If we do find such life, however, it will give new meaning to the phrase “Mother Earth.”