Trans-Neptunian Objects, or TNOs, sound simple enough, the term being descriptive of objects moving beyond the orbit of Neptune, which means objects with a semimajor axis greater than 30 AU. It makes sense that such objects would be out there as remnants of planet formation, but they’re highly useful today in telling us about what the outer system consists of. Part of the reason for that is that TNOs come in a variety of types, and the motions of these objects can point to things we have yet to discover.

Thus the cottage industry in finding a ninth planet in the Solar System, with all the intrigue that provides. The current ‘Planet 9 Model’ points to a super-Earth five to ten times as massive as our planet located beyond 400 AU. It’s a topic we’ve discussed often in these pages. I can recall the feeling I had long ago when I first learned that little Pluto really didn’t explain everything we were discovering about the system beyond Neptune. It simply wasn’t big enough. That pointed to something else, but what? New planets are exciting stuff, especially when they are nearby, as the possibility of flybys and landings in a foreseeable future is real.

Image: An artist’s illustration of a possible ninth planet in our solar system, hovering at the edge of our solar system. Neptune’s orbit is show as a bright ring around the Sun. Credit: ESO/Tom Ruen/nagualdesign.

But a different solution for a trans-Neptunian planet is possible, as found in the paper under discussion today. Among the active researchers into the more than 1000 known TNOs and their movements are Patryk Sofia Lykawka (Kobe University) and Takashi Ito (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan), who lay out the basics about these objects in a new paper that has just appeared in The Astronomical Journal. The astronomers point out that we can use them to learn about the formation and evolution of the giant planets, including possible migrations and the makeup of the protoplanetary disk that spawned them. But it’s noteworthy that no single evolutionary model exists that would explain all known TNO orbits in a unified way.

So the paper goes to work on such a model, and while concentrating on the Kuiper Belt and objects with semimajor axes between 50 and 1500 AU, the authors pin down four populations, and thus four constraints that any successful model of the population must explain. The first of these are detached TNOs, meaning objects that are outside the gravitational influence of Neptune and thus not locked into any mean motion resonance with it. The second is a population the authors consider statistically significant, TNOs with orbital inclinations to the ecliptic above 45 degrees. This population is not predicted by existing models of early Neptune migration.

The paper is generous with details about these and the following two populations, but here I’ll just give the basics. The third group consists of TNOs considered to be on extreme orbits. Here we fall back on the useful Sedna and other objects with large values for perihelion of 60 AU or more. These demand that we find a cause for perturbations beyond the four giant planets, possibly even a rogue planet’s passing. Any model of the outer system must be able to explain the orbits of these extreme objects, an open question because interactions with a migrating Neptune do not suffice.

Finally, we have a population of TNOs that are stable in various mean motion resonances with Neptune over billions of years – the authors call these “stable resonance TNOs” – and it’s interesting to note that most of them are locked in a resonance of approximately 4 billion years, which points to their early origin. The point is that we have to be able to explain all four of these populations as we evolve a theory on what kind of objects could produce the observable result.

What a wild place the outer Solar System would have been during the period of planet formation. The authors believe it likely that several thousand dwarf planets with mass in the range of Pluto and “several tens” of sub-Earth and Earth-class planets would have formed in this era, most of them lost through gravitational scattering or collisions. We’ve been looking at trans-Neptunian planet explanations for today’s Kuiper Belt intensely for several decades, but of the various suggested possibilities, none explained the orbital structure of the Kuiper Belt to the satisfaction of Lykawka and Ito. The existing Planet 9 model here gives way to a somewhat closer, somewhat smaller world deduced from computer simulations examining the dynamical evolution of TNOs.

What the authors introduce, then, is the possibility of a super-Earth perhaps as little as 1.5 times Earth’s mass with a semimajor axis in the range of 250 to 500 AU. The closest perihelion works out to 195 au in these calculations, with an orbit that is inclined 30 degrees to the ecliptic. If we plug such a world into this paper’s simulations, we find that it explains TNOs that are decoupled from Neptune and also many of the high-inclination TNOs, while being compatible with resonant orbit TNOs stable for billions of years. The model thus broadly fits observed TNO populations.

But there is a useful addition. In the passage below, the italics are mine:

…the results of the KBP scenario support the existence of a yet-undiscovered planet in the far outer solar system. Furthermore, this scenario also predicts the existence of new TNO populations located beyond 150 au generated by the KBP’s perturbations that can serve as observationally testable signatures of the existence of this planet. More detailed knowledge of the orbital structure in the distant Kuiper Belt can reveal or rule out the existence of any hypothetical planet in the outer solar system. The existence of a KBP may also offer new constraints on planet formation and dynamical evolution in the trans-Jovian region.

A testable signature is the gold standard for a credible hypothesis, which is not to say that we will necessarily find it. But if we do locate such a world, or a planet corresponding to the more conventional Planet 9 scenarios, we will have ramped up our incentive to explore beyond the Kuiper Belt, an incentive already given further impetus by our growing knowledge of the heliosphere and its interactions with the interstellar medium. But to the general public, interstellar dust is theoretical. An actual planet – a place that can be photographed and one day landed upon – awakens curiosity and the innate human drive to explore with a target that pushes all our current limits.

The paper is Lykawka & Ito, “Is There an Earth-like Planet in the Distant Kuiper Belt?,” Astronomical Journal Vol. 166, No. 3 (25 August 2023) 118 (full text).