Apr 06, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Astronomers Find Four Candidates for Mysterious ‘Planet 9’

One of the most enduring modern astronomical mysteries concerns the search for an elusive “Planet 9” in our solar system. This theoretical ninth planet has been speculated to be the cause of some rather odd gravitational and orbital phenomena which have been observed in a group of distant objects in our solar system known as trans-Neptunian objects. Some theories suggest that these orbital anomalies could only be caused by an undiscovered planet-sized object lurking on the outskirts of our solar system or even passing perilously through it every so often, destroying worlds caught in its wake.

js planet 9 comp
Doomsday prophecies concerning a Planet 9 collision have been thrown around over the last year, but so far, so good.

So far, however, Planet 9/Planet X/Nibiru speculation has remained just that. Orbital anomalies are one thing, but actually visually identifying a planet is another. Nevertheless, the search for the phantom planet continues. That search just got a big boost thanks to the joint efforts of thousands of citizen scientists and astronomers from The Australian National University (ANU). The astronomers recently launched a website which sought the help of willing volunteers to sift through data from ANU’s SkyMapper telescope in an attempt to detect the gravitational signatures of any rogue or unknown planets. To their amazement, thousands of volunteers gave their time to pore through the data. One volunteer identified over 12,000 objects alone.

Most of the evidence for Planet 9 involves irregular orbits of planetoids and asteroids beyond Neptune.

ANU’s Dr. Brad Tucker, who led the project, said that the thousands of volunteers enabled the analysis of a massive amount of data that would have otherwise been impossible:

With the help of tens of thousands of dedicated volunteers sifting through hundreds of thousands of images taken by SkyMapper, we have achieved four years of scientific analysis in under three days. We’ve managed to rule out a planet about the size of Neptune being in about 90 per cent of the southern sky out to a depth of about 350 times the distance the Earth is from the Sun.

With the help of the volunteers, the astronomers have identified four likely candidates which might be the rumored Planet 9. There remains the likelihood that the objects could be dwarf planets or large asteroids, but the team is optimistic. The four unknown objects will now be thoroughly studied over the coming months using the SkyMapper telescope. 

ANU Planet 9 team with Brian Cox
The BBC’s 'Stargazing Live' broadcast the beginning of the project from ANU's Siding Spring Observatory.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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