Astronomers have found hints of a massive, distant, still unseen object at the edge of the solar system. It could be a 10th planet or perhaps a failed companion star, and has an orbit that is 3 trillion miles away.
Two teams of scientists, from England and the University of Louisiana, independently report this conclusion based on the highly elliptical orbits of comets that originate from an icy cloud of debris far beyond Pluto. ?We were driven to this by rejecting everything else we could think of,? says University of Louisiana physicist Daniel Whitmire.
A couple years ago, Whitmire, along fellow physicists John Matese and Patrick Whitman, noticed the farthest points of the comets? orbits didn?t appear random but were bunched together. ?We accidentally noticed they weren?t uniform,? Whitmire says.
They tried to explain the clumping as the gravitational pull from some stars in the Milky Way. ?That ultimately didn?t work,? Whitmire says. ?We?ve gone through several other models trying to explain this.?
At the same time, John Murray, a planetary scientist at The Open University in Great Britain, made a similar observation about comets. ?I started puzzling what this might could be,? he says.
The most obvious but seemingly unlikely explanation would be a planet. ?I thought we?d better rule that out,? he says. But as he analyzed the orbits, the farthest points appeared to fall on a circular orbital path ? ?which is exactly what you would expect if there was a planet out there.?
The planet is estimated to have a mass as large as one to10 Jupiters. As it orbits, its gravitational wake disturbs the icy debris of the outer solar system, causing some of it to plunge toward the sun as comets. No one has yet directly observed a 10th planet, and there could be another cause for the cluster of comets. Both Murray and the University of Louisiana physicists put the planet in an orbit about 3 trillion miles, or half a light year, from the sun. The nearest star is four light-years away. In a scaled-down version of the solar system, if the Earth is one inch from the sun, Pluto, the ninth planet, would be about a yard from the sun. The new planet would be a half-mile away from the sun.
At that distance, the 10th planet is be too dim to be seen by telescopes, although there is some hope that if it exists, the next generation of space-based infrared telescopes might be able to observe it.
Murray thinks the planet may have been wandering through the galaxy before being captured by our solar system?s gravity. Whitmire suggests it?s a ?brown dwarf,? or a failed star, a companion to the sun.
?It?s possibly suggestive,? says Brian Marsden, associate director for planetary sciences at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. ?I don?t want to bet on it. We?re certainly not going to name it.?
Whitmire says, ?Until it?s found, you can never be overly confident. We know in science you can be fooled by statistics.? He adds, ?If I was betting, it?s better than 50-50 odds that it?s there.?
To learn more, read ?Dark Matter, Missing Planets & New Comets? by Tom van Flandern,click here.
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