When Pluto was demoted to dwarf status in 2006, we were left with a mere eight planets in our solar system. Now Planetary Astronomy Professor Mike Brown, the researcher responsible for 'killing' Pluto may have redeemed himself with the discovery of a massive ninth planet - One he believes is worthy of being added to the elite group of eight.
The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researcher and his colleague Konstantin Batygin think that Planet 9, which is lurking at the edge of our solar system, is about three times larger than Earth. It revolves around the sun in a highly elliptical orbit. Computer simulations suggest that even at its closest the planet is 200 - 300 times farther that Earth gets to the star. At its farthest, the gaseous giant is a distance of between 600 - 1,200 times that of Earth. It is no wonder that it takes the celestial body over 20,000 Earth years to complete a single orbit!
But before you start celebrating and adding the new planet to your solar system chart and song, keep in mind that the existence of Planet 9 has only been confirmed by computer simulations - No human has ever seen it. In fact, Brown and Batygin are not even sure of its exact location. They hope now that astronomers know about its possible existence, they will be able to find it with the help of sophisticated telescopes.
The researchers say their suspicion that there could be another planet lurking further out in our solar system came in 2013, shortly after they discovered dwarf planet Sedna, in the Kuiper belt, an area that lies just beyond Neptune's orbit. Brown says that while observing Sedna, they noticed it had an odd orbit, almost like it was being affected by the gravitational pull of a larger planet.
Since the scientists knew Neptune was not causing the gravitational pull, it raised the possibility of the existence of another planet. The researchers say they knew they were on to something when they found other small objects in the area displaying similar orbit patterns. It seemed as though all were clustering around one central object.
To verify their suspicion, Brown and Batygin inserted a simulated planet between the objects. Sure enough, after some tweaking with the mass and orbit, they were able to conclude that a planet, ten times the mass of Earth on an egg-shaped orbit could be responsible for the odd orbit patterns of the smaller celestial bodies.
This, of course, is not the first time that researchers have claimed to have discovered a new planet in our solar system. But the Caltech scientists who published their research in the Astronomical Journal on January 20, believe Planet 9 is for real. The fact that Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington, D.C. noticed similar orbit patterns when observing the objects in the Kuiper Belt, gives their theory some credibility. But until someone can see and capture Planet 9 on camera, Brown and Batygin's discovery will be regarded as what it is — just another intelligent computer simulation.
Resources: nbc.com, gizmag.com,space.com, caltech.edu.