“You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”
It’s perhaps the most hated quote in “The Wizard of Oz” – Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy that she’s had the power to go back to Kansas ever since she landed in Oz … no need for slippers, Munchkins, dumb scarecrows, flying monkeys or a witch’s broomstick. A new study appears to do the same thing to astronomers searching for the long-rumored Planet Nine – telling them they’ve had the data to locate it all along, or at least since the TESS space telescope was launched in April 2018. Incredulous astronomers -- insulted by the insinuation that they have no hearts, no courage, no brains and no common sense – are crying foul … but the study may be right. Click your heels three times and read on.
"Given a known orbit, one can predict an object's location in a series of background-subtracted TESS FFIs and sum the flux.
To discover new objects, with unknown trajectories, we can try all possible orbits!"
In their study, published this week in Research Notes of the AAS (American Astronomical Society), Matthew J. Holman, Matthew J. Payne and András Pál introduce the idea that the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) space telescope, which is currently looking for exoplanets using the transit method (watching for fluctuations in the light of a star that could be caused by a planet passing in front of it), may have in the process taken pictures of “the hypothesized” Planet Nine. However, because its image is so faint and no one knows what its orbital path is, it can’t be identified from a single frame. The good news is, TESS is taking many (sometimes thousands of) images of the same sky frame which can be stacked on top of each other – a technique called “digital tracking” which causes faint objects to appear brighter and has been used to discover trans-Neptunian objects or asteroids.
To test this theory, the researchers tried it with three known trans-Neptunian objects -- Sedna, 2015 BP519 and 2015 BM518 – which have an apparent near-infrared magnitude of between 19 and 24 – the magnitude many models show for the hypothetical Planet Nine. Digital tracking found all three, so it should be able to find Planet Nine by stacking all of TESS’s images and using software to sort through them looking for a bright unknown object around 19 in magnitude. All they need to do is “try all possible orbits!”
"If it's in the Northern Hemisphere, we're not there just yet."
Matthew Holman told Fox News that TESS has finished scanning the sky above the Southern Hemisphere and has moved north with about six months left in its two-year mission. That means there’s a 50-50 chance images of Planet Nine have already been taken. By next summer, he can say:
"You've always had the images of Planet Nine my dear, you just had to find it for yourself.”
What are the chances that the researchers will convince someone with a supercomputer to let them feed all of these TESS images into it to search for a “hypothetical” Planet Nine? They might be able to sell the idea by pointing out it could also find some other smaller trans-Neptunian objects to join Sedna in the ranks of dwarf planets.
In the meantime, Sum the Flux would be a great name for a band.