Many great discoveries occur when researchers go back over old data for a second or third or fourth or nth look. A famous British astronomer claims he took another look at data collected nearly 40 years ago using the first space telescope to perform a survey of the entire night sky at infrared wavelengths and thinks he’s found the holy grail of astronomy – Planet 9.
“In 1983, while working on the preparation of the IRAS Point Source Catalog, I undertook a systematic search for Planet X in the IRAS data. The search was unsuccessful though it did yield a detection of Comet Bowell (Walker and Rowan-Robinson 1984).”
Michael Rowan-Robinson is an astronomer, astrophysicist and professor of astrophysics at Imperial College London perhaps best known as the doctoral advisor to the most rocking astrophysicist ever – guitarist Dr. Brian May of the band Queen. His work in the early 1980s with data from the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) yielded an asteroid but no mysterious planet messing up the orbit of Neptune. Rowan-Robinson moved on from Planet X (his research took place when Pluto was still a planet), but after seeing all of the attention given to Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology after they proposed 2016 that the strange orbits of six trans-Neptunian objects could be caused by a Planet 9, he decided to review the old data again. Since no one had found it yet by looking where Brown and Batygin said it would be, Rowan-Robinson aimed his search elsewhere.
After filtering out background sources of infrared radiation like stars and galaxies, Rowan-Robinson looked for objects that could disrupt the trans-Neptunian orbits and found several hundred. However, none matched the Planet 9 criteria of Brown and Batygin and all were much closer to Earth than they predicted. He found three that looked promising and one of them met all of his criteria for a Planet 9 – it was in the direction of the Constellation Cepheus, was between 3 and 5 Earth masses and orbited the Sun at a distance of 225 Astronomical Units. That object is R20593 + 6413 and the evidence was convincing enough to Rowan-Robinson to publish it in arXiv open access archive – the paper is also accepted for publication in the Monthly Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society. Is this a drop-the-mic-we-found-Planet-9 moment?
“Balderdash!” or whatever astronomers say when contradicted. At Olhar Digital, Mike Brown says that R20593 + 6413 would not be able to gravitationally disturb the trans-Neptunian objects like his definition of Planet 9 would. However, he admits R20593 + 6413 could be real – it’s just not Planet 9. Rowan-Robinson concedes that the IRAS images are old and a new look with stronger telescopes would help.
In other words, hang onto the mic and hold off on the Queen concert for the time being.