In the outskirts of our solar system, billions of kilometres past Pluto, there might be a mysterious planet lurking in the abyss. The hypothetical body is known as Planet X or Planet Nine, and some astronomers have been trying to prove its existence for a good chunk of the last decade. It’s believed that the phantom planet has a mass about 10 times that of Earth making it close in size to our ice giants. Like many other celestial objects, Planet Nine is thought to orbit the Sun except it takes a much longer elliptical route, travelling an estimated 20 times farther from the Sun on average than Neptune. NASA says at that distance, it may take between 10,000 and 20,000 Earth years to make one full orbit around the Sun.
Planet Nine is too far to be observed with a modern telescope, but a planet as big as it’s believed to be should leave a trace of its presence in the gravity it exerts on other objects. And that thought process is based on Sir Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which established that the gravitational force between two bodies is proportional to their masses. This formula essentially shows that an object with a large mass will have an effect on an object with a smaller mass. Planet Nine believers are pointing to Newton’s law of universal gravitation as a basis for its existence. This after the discovery of several distant objects that are behaving in an unusual way.
Caltech researchers have found mathematical evidence suggesting there may be a “Planet X” deep in the solar system. This hypothetical Neptune-sized planet orbits our Sun in a highly elongated orbit far beyond Pluto. The object, which the researchers have nicknamed “Planet Nine,” could have a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbit about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than Neptune. It may take between 10,000 and 20,000 Earth years to make one full orbit around the Sun.
The announcement does not mean there is a new planet in our solar system. The existence of this distant world is only theoretical at this point and no direct observation of the object nicknamed “Planet 9” has been made. The mathematical prediction of a planet could explain the unique orbits of some smaller objects in the Kuiper Belt, a distant region of icy debris that extends far beyond the orbit of Neptune. Astronomers are now searching for the predicted planet.
“The possibility of a new planet is certainly an exciting one for me as a planetary scientist and for all of us,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “This is not, however, the detection or discovery of a new planet. It’s too early to say with certainty there’s a so-called Planet X. What we’re seeing is an early prediction based on modelling from limited observations. It’s the start of a process that could lead to an exciting result.”
The objects in question are located in the inner Oort Cloud, a mysterious region that surrounds the solar system like a bubble. The group has complimentary orbit patterns that swing far out in the same general direction and then cluster as they round the Sun. It’s believed these similarities and unusual behaviours are a result of Planet Nine’s gravitational pull, and a recently discovered dwarf planet is giving more weight to this scenario.
The pint-sized planet, nicknamed ‘The Goblin’, travels about 2,300 astronomical units away from the Sun at its most distant point and 65 AU at its closest. Because of this extreme distance, the gravity of the known planets in the outer solar system are unlikely the cause of the Goblin’s unusual orbit.
For now, the sample size of the perturbed distant objects is too small to draw any conclusions. But NASA says the Oort Cloud may contain more than a trillion icy bodies, and it’s likely that new discoveries could change the perception of a potential phantom planet. In the meantime, Planet Nine believers are hoping that more newly discovered dwarf planets, like ‘The Goblin’, will lead them to the ultimate astronomical achievement.
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