Published: February 18, 2016
Scientists from the California Institute of Technology have discovered evidence suggesting the existence of a large planet beyond Pluto. Mike Brown, Ph.D., and Konstantin Batygin, Ph.D., published their findings in The Astronomical Journal in late January.
Scientists have been searching for a planet beyond Neptune, termed “Planet X,” for centuries. Claims of a new planet are often met with skepticism. However, Batygin and Brown prepared a mathematically sound defense of their research, and many respected scientists in their field seem to accept and support their data.
Discovering a new planet is an almost ironic role for Brown, since he led the research that resulted in Pluto’s demotion from planethood. In 2005, Brown discovered Eris, planet about the same size as Pluto beyond Neptune in an area known as the Kuiper Belt. Brown’s discovery resulted in Pluto’s recategorization as a dwarf planet. Brown notes that, based on the calculations, the size of Planet X is large enough that no one will doubt its status as a true planet if it is observed.
In 2003, Brown discovered Sedna, a smaller object than either Eris or Pluto, which possesses a strange orbit very far from both the sun and Neptune. Brown concluded that something else besides Neptune must have pulled Sedna into its orbit. More recently, Brown, with Batygin, observed the movement of six known astronomical objects beyond Neptune, including Sedna, that all have similar orbits. After further research, Brown and Batygin concluded that only a planet can affect the orbits of so many objects.
Brown and Batygin worked together for about a year to discuss the implications of the objects’ orbits. The two became close friends as they continued to work on the project. They predicted the size of the suspected planet (between five and 15 times the size of Earth) and the orbits of other objects that would be affected by this massive planet.
The existence of these objects, exactly where Brown and Batygin predicted, further supports their inference that Planet X exists. They also found that a large planet with an anti-aligned orbit, an orbit in which the planet is closest to the sun while the other objects are 180 degrees away from it, explains the strange orbits of the other objects.
Even after convincing other astronomers that Planet X exists, Brown and Batygin must explain how the planet found an orbit so far from the sun. They hypothesize that Planet X was formed with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, but that another small gas giant could have collided with Planet X and sent it far from the sun where it settled into the orbit it now holds. Brown and Batygin calculated 0.007 percent chance that the objects they observed are simply in their orbits by coincidence instead of because of the existence of a Neptune-sized planet. However, until the planet is actually observed, the existence of the new planet is only a hypothesis.
Brown and Batygin are cautiously confident and hopeful. They are currently working with Subaru, an 8-meter telescope in Hawaii, to catch a glimpse of Planet X. Other telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, have a chance of finding the planet as well, and Brown and Batygin published their work in the hope that it will be found soon. Maybe our solar system will have nine planets again.
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