Planet Nine: How we’ll find the Solar System’s missing planet

The predicted ninth planet has so far proved elusive, with searches of 50 per cent of the sky in the range where it ‘should’ be having turned up nothing. But planetary theorists Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin insist the evidence shows they are on the right track. Others talk of broken glass and fingerprints – shades of Sherlock Holmes.

Beyond Neptune, a handful of small worlds are moving in harmony.

Astronomers think they might be dancing to the tune of a third world lurking in the darkness, one that’s four times bigger than Earth and significant enough to be named our Solar System’s ninth planet.

Now they think they know exactly where to look for it, says Science Focus.

Look up at the night sky and find the famous three stars of Orion’s Belt. Then extend the line between them up and to the right towards the constellation of Taurus, The Bull. Halfway between them sits a small patch of otherwise unremarkable sky that could well be home to one of the most famous finds in astronomical history – a ninth planet orbiting the Sun.

It isn’t every day a new planet is discovered in the Solar System. In fact, by one measure, it has only happened twice before in all of human history with Uranus (1781) and Neptune (1846). All the other planets have been known since antiquity and were never really ‘discovered’.

Objects such as Ceres (the largest asteroid) and Pluto were once deemed part of the planet club, but have since had their membership revoked. William Herschel, Urbain Le Verrier, Johann Gottfried Galle and John Couch Adams are the only astronomers to ever find a new planet that is still considered as such.

That elite list may soon be about to grow. CalTech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin are among the frontrunners to join it.

Back in 2016 they went public with the radical notion that the roll call of planets orbiting the Sun isn’t finished. They had noticed a handful of small worlds beyond Neptune behaving mysteriously, and considered that perhaps a ninth planet could account for their strange motion.

“We were confident that another planet could explain the features of the outer Solar System,” says Batygin. They’ve been scouring the sky for this object, but so far it has escaped them. For now, this potential world goes by the moniker of Planet Nine. If and when it is discovered, it will be named after a Roman or Greek deity, just like the other planets.

Long-distance relationship

Planet Nine’s suggested existence is based on observations over the last decade with telescopes big enough to peer into the murky environs beyond the eight known planets. Studying this under-explored wilderness is a real challenge. We only see thanks to reflected sunlight, and for these trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) that light has to undergo quite a journey.

The odyssey starts at the Sun, then travels out to a distance of more than 4,500,000,000km, before bouncing off an object and making the return trip to the Earth almost all the way back to the start. That light is also fading all the while, making it very faint and requiring a big telescope to collect it.

2012 VP113 orbit with solar system orbits [credit: Tomruen @ Wikipedia]

Take the 600-kilometre-wide object known as 2012 VP113. It sits 80 times further from the Sun than the Earth, meaning the light we see reflected from it is around 40 million times dimmer than normal sunlight. Despite travelling at 300,000 kilometres per second, light takes nearly a day to cover the full distance from the Sun to VP113 and back to the Earth.

It was the discovery of VP113 by astronomers Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo in 2014 that first flagged up the possibility of an undiscovered planet. They are another team currently hunting down Planet Nine.

Closer scrutiny of VP113’s path around the Sun showed that it shared orbital characteristics with another TNO called Sedna. The angle at which they approach the Sun is eerily similar. Our best theories of Solar System formation say that for each object this tilt should be random. So the fact that these two objects match arouses suspicion.

“They’re like the fingerprints and broken glass of a crime scene,” says Megan Schwamb from the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii and co-discoverer of several TNOs. “Who did it?”.

Continued here.

via Tallbloke’s Talkshop

September 23, 2019 at 04:57AM

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