Mention Planet Nine – the alleged large planet orbiting our Sun at such a great distance that it has never officially been seen – and the conversation quickly turns to Cat Tech astrophysicists and astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown. Brown is responsible for the alleged planet being ‘Nine’ rather than ‘Ten’ or X because it was his lobbying that helped demote Pluto to dwarf planet status. Brown and Batygin’s new cause is the hypothetical Planet Nine, whose existence would explain anomalies among objects in the remote Kuiper Belt. Brown and Batygin believe it’s highly likely Planet Nine exists and in August 2021 published a study about their computer model which points astronomers to a narrow swath of sky in the Taurus constellation to look for it. At that time, Brown and Batygin revealed they would join in the search of Taurus using the Subaru Telescope at the Mauna Kea Observatory on Hawaii. It’s been two months … time for an update.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Planet Nine has already been imaged in one of the large sky surveys currently underway, but, if not, it will be hard for it to hide from the Vera Rubin Observatory once it starts operations in a few years.”
In an interview with The Daily Galaxy, Michael Brown explains their models made Planet Nine both easier and harder to find – they show that the planet is closer to the Sun that they originally suspected, but smaller than they first thought, only about five times the size of Earth. Although the small gas planet will be faint, they believe it’s visible and Brown thinks it’s already been imaged – quite possibly by his own effort with the Subaru telescope. The challenge is to scan images of large pieces of the sky for long amounts of time to identify minute changes in the locations of faint objects and pinpoint the one on a bizarre track that only a Planet Nine could make.
“My favorite characteristic of the Planet Nine hypothesis is that it is observationally testable. The prospect of one day seeing real images of Planet Nine is absolutely electrifying. Although finding Planet Nine astronomically is a great challenge, I’m very optimistic that we will image it within the next decade.”
Konstantin Batygin is not quite as optimistic as Brown that images of Planet Nine already exist, but he confirms that it can and -- in his estimation – will happen by the next decade, especially after the Vera Rubin Observatory is running in 2023. Yale astronomer Malena Rice tells The Daily Galaxy she’s on Brown’s side and may herself have the images in her possession via her use of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) spacecraft.
“Right now is a particularly exciting time for Planet Nine— the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) spacecraft is currently observing the exact part of the sky where recent models have predicted that Planet Nine is most likely to reside. Planet Nine, if it exists, should be in that dataset and should be recoverable; it’s just a matter of figuring out exactly where to look. Fortunately, the computational methods for this search already exist! The discovery of Planet Nine may be right at our fingertips.”
“Planet Nine, if it exists, should be in that dataset.” That’s astronomer-talk for finding a planetary needle in a solar system haystack … or a tiny faint Waldo somewhere in an overhead shot of the crowd at a college football game. Throw Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb into the mix on the side of Brown, Batygin and Rice and you have a lot of scientific knowledge supporting the Planet Nine hypothesis.
If Michael Brown finds Planet Nine, will you forgive him for Pluto?