Ninth planet may have been discovered, researchers say
But its presence there would explain a number of mysterious features of the field of icy objects and debris beyond Neptune called the Kuiper Belt, they wrote in their paper published in the current issue of the Astronomical Journal.
No sooner had we got used to the idea of there being only eight planets in our solar system, after Pluto was demoted to "dwarf" status, astronomers have gone and found a new hidden planet that's at least 10 times more massive than Earth.
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have found evidence in the outer solar system of an object that could be a real ninth planet.
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"We realized that most of these objects beyond Neptune and beyond Pluto, they all go around the sun and they're all sort of pointing off in different directions", said Brown.
Brown and Batygin at first reacted skeptically that they'd discovered a planet, but over time it became clear the existence of a ninth planet was the only logical explanation for such singular orbits. "What we have found is a gravitational signature of Planet 9 lurking in the outskirts of the solar system". Clearing the neighborhood around the orbit means that the planet must be gravitationally dominant in its orbit, without any other bodies of comparable size other than its own satellites or those otherwise under its gravitational influence. In 1905, Percival Lowell predicted a Planet X existed beyond Neptune; his calculations actually led to the discovery of Pluto, which was too small to be what Lowell suspected. The researchers cite how KBOs - Kuiper Belt Objects, that is - move about, indicating something big like Planet Nine may exist. Brown and astronomer Konstantin Batygin, also at Caltech, initially were sceptical that such a large planet would have eluded detection. "We know the orbit, but we don't know where in the orbit it is".
At such distances, the planet could be impossible to spot - even with the two huge telescopes that are now looking for it. So little light is sent back from that far away that it might never make it back for us to see.
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They estimate that this yet-to-be-observed planet is anywhere from five to 10 times larger than Earth, which would make it the fifth largest planet in the solar system.
The object, nicknamed Planet Nine, orbits about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than Neptune.
The researchers hope the announcement may inspire people to start searching the skies for Planet Nine.
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Not Pluto: Scientists say they have 'good evidence' for a ninth planet in the solar system
Cape Canaveral: Scientists reported on Wednesday they finally have "good evidence" for Planet X, a true ninth planet on the fringes of our solar system.
The gas giant is thought to be almost as big as Neptune and orbiting billions of miles beyond Neptune's path, distant enough to take 10,000 to 20,000 years to circle the sun.
This Planet 9, as the two California Institute of Technology researchers call it, hasn't been spotted yet. They base their findings on mathematical and computer modelling, and anticipate its discovery via telescope within five years or less.
This artist's concept illustration courtesy of Caltech/Robert Hurt shows a distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. AFP
The two reported on their research on Wednesday in the Astronomical Journal because they want people to help them look for it.
"We could have stayed quiet and quietly spent the next five years searching the skies ourselves and hoping to find it. But I would rather somebody find it sooner, than me find it later," astronomer Mike Brown told The Associated Press.
"I want to see it. I want to see what it looks like. I want to understand where it is, and I think this will help."
Once it's detected, Brown insists there will be no Pluto-style planetary debate. Brown ought to know; he's the so-called Pluto killer who helped lead the charge against Pluto's planetary status in 2006. (It's now officially considered a dwarf planet.)
His colleague in this latest Planet 9 report, also from Caltech in Pasadena, is planetary scientist Konstantin Batygin.
"For the first time in more than 150 years, there's good evidence that the planetary census of the solar system is incomplete," Batygin said, referring to Neptune's discovery as Planet 8.
The two based their findings on the fact that six objects in the icy Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone on the far reaches of the solar system, appear to be influenced by only one thing: a real planet.
Brown actually discovered one of these six objects more than a decade ago, Sedna, a large minor planet way out there on the solar system frontier.
"This is a prediction. What we have found is a gravitational signature of Planet 9 lurking in the outskirts of the solar system,' Batygin said. "We have not found the object itself," he stressed, adding that the actual discovery when it happens will be "era-defining."
Added Brown: "We have felt a great disturbance in the force." Depending on where this Planet 9 is in its egg-shaped orbit, a space telescope may be needed to confirm its presence, the researchers said.
Or good backyard telescopes may spot it, they noted, if the planet is relatively closer to us in its swing around the sun. It's an estimated 20 billion to 100 billion miles from us.