Pluto fans who are still angry at Caltech astronomer Mike Brown for getting their favorite solar system member demoted to dwarf planet status probably won’t like this news either. Brown and a colleague now say they have evidence that another planet exists far beyond Pluto – a planet many call Planet X but Brown calls Planet 9 just to annoy those people too.
In a paper published today (January 20th) in The Astronomical Journal, Brown and fellow Caltech scientist Konstantin Batygin describe how they used mathematical models to determine the existence of a gaseous planet a little smaller than Neptune and billions of miles outside of its orbit.
The models show that the odd orbital movements of six large Kuiper Belt objects (including the dwarf planet Sedna which was also discovered by Brown), could only occur if there was another large planet whose gravitational pull was affecting them. That mystery planet forces these objects’ axes to point in the same direction in physical space even though they move in different orbits at different rates.
Brown says Planet Nine orbits the Sun once every 10,000 to 20,000 years. For those seeing-is-believing folks, he believes Planet 9 could be visible using the new Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile when it becomes operational in five years.
In the meantime, Brown and his colleagues are looking for other large Kuiper Belt objects with similar peculiarities to Sedna and the others that would strengthen their proof of Planet Nine’s existence.
Is Planet Nine the Planet Nibiru that many fear will collide with or come extremely close to Earth in the very near future? Probably not, since its nearest approach to the Sun is still well outside the orbit of Pluto. It’s more likely that Planet Nine was the fifth of the core gaseous planets (joining Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) from the early solar system that got too close to one of the others and was flung into its strange orbit.
The discovery of a Planet 9 – with either visual or some other concrete proof – will be a really big deal. Will it cause Pluto fans to forgive planet killer Mike Brown? Probably not.