A new planet ten times the mass of Earth deep in the outer system? That’s the word out of Caltech, where Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown report the evidence from computer modeling and simulations, though no planet has yet been directly observed. The planet would orbit 20 times further from the Sun than Neptune, with an orbital period between 10,000 and 20,000 years.
“This would be a real ninth planet,” says Brown. “There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that’s still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting.”
Image: This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC).
From what we know so far, the planet would explain features in the Kuiper Belt, including the fact that from a list of thirteen of the most distant objects in the Belt, six of them follow elliptical orbits that point in the same direction in physical space, as this Caltech news release explains. Says Brown:
“It’s almost like having six hands on a clock all moving at different rates, and when you happen to look up, they’re all in exactly the same place,” says Brown. The odds of having that happen are something like 1 in 100, he says. But on top of that, the orbits of the six objects are also all tilted in the same way—pointing about 30 degrees downward in the same direction relative to the plane of the eight known planets. The probability of that happening is about 0.007 percent. “Basically it shouldn’t happen randomly,” Brown says. “So we thought something else must be shaping these orbits.”
A Kuiper Belt with 100 times the mass it has today could explain the phenomenon, but that’s obviously out. Simulations involving a massive planet in an anti-aligned orbit seemed to work, however. By anti-alignment, the researchers mean an orbit in which the planet’s perihelion is 180 degrees across from the perihelion of all other objects and known planets. Mean-motion resonance could keep Kuiper Belt objects from colliding with the planet and maintain the necessary alignment, with the new planet nudging KBOs to maintain the configuration. Says Batygin: “I had never seen anything like this in celestial mechanics.”
Image: A predicted consequence of Planet Nine is that a second set of confined objects should also exist. These objects are forced into positions at right angles to Planet Nine and into orbits that are perpendicular to the plane of the solar system. Five known objects (blue) fit this prediction precisely. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) [Diagram was created using WorldWide Telescope.
Brown and Batygin are continuing to refine their simulations to learn more about the planet’s orbit and gravitational effects, while at the same time searching the sky for it. Remember that the orbit is only approximately known. It may well show up in images taken through previous surveys, though if in the most distant part of its orbit, large telescopes like Keck or the Subaru instrument on Mauna Kea may be needed to see it. “I would love to find it,” says Brown. “But I’d also be perfectly happy if someone else found it. That is why we’re publishing this paper. We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching.”
The paper, titled “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System,” appears in the Astronomical Journal, published online 20 January 2016 (full text). Needless to say, more on this tomorrow.