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Siding Spring Comet via WISE. credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

About that Giant Planet Possibly Hiding in the Outer Solar System…

16 Feb , 2011

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An old story got new legs this week as word went viral of a possible new 9th planet in our solar system – a gas giant bigger than Jupiter – which could be hiding somewhere in the Oort Cloud, just waiting to be found.

An article this week in The Independent suggested the new planet, called Tyche, had already been found among data from the WISE mission. This prompted the WISE team to post a rebuttal on their Facebook page: “Not true. A pair of scientists published a paper stating that if such a big planet exists in the far reaches of the Solar System, then WISE should have seen it. That is true. But, analysis over the next couple of years will be needed to determine if WISE has actually detected such a world or not.”

To make sense of this all, Universe Today sought out a scientist who has looked at the outer solar system as much as anyone, if not more: Mike Brown, of Eris, Haumea and Makemake fame – to get his take on Tyche.

“Yes,” said Brown, “this is all getting pretty funny these days!”

The story starts at least a decade ago. For years John Matese of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and colleague Daniel Whitmire have been trying to figure out why many of the comets that originate from way out in the distant-most part of our solar system — the Oort Cloud — have strange orbits that don’t jive with theories of how comets should behave. The two scientists first suggested that the gravitational influence from a dark companion to the Sun — a dim brown-dwarf or red-dwarf star — was sending comets careening towards the inner solar system. They called it Nemesis, (another thing that went viral), but the Nemesis idea has widely been refuted.

Last year, Matese and Whitmire suggested that possibly a large planet four times the mass of Jupiter in the Oort Cloud could explain why long-period comets appear to be clustered in a band inclined to the ecliptic instead of coming from random directions. (Here’s their paper.)

Then came a revival of their theory with several articles about it this week, reporting it as seemingly fact.

Could there possibly be a giant planet 500 times as distant as Neptune?

“Absolutely,” Brown said. “Many people have speculated about such possibilities for a long time. It’s an intriguing idea because, well, it would be fun, to say the least.”

But beyond fun and excitement, is there actually any evidence for it?

The layout of the solar system, including the Oort Cloud, on a logarithmic scale. Credit: NASA

“Well, the quality of the data that Matese and Whitmire have to work with is pretty crummy –no fault of their own — it’s just the historical record of where comets have come from,” Brown said in an email. “I don’t believe that anyone understands the ins and outs of the data set well enough to really draw a robust conclusion. But, Matese and Whitmire did the best they could and think the data point to something out there.”

Does Brown think there is really something out there?

“Well,” he said, “if I had to bet one way or another I’d bet no. The data don’t convince me, and there is no other hint anywhere that such a thing is real. So I’m pretty skeptical.”

That being said, however, Brown believes WISE really does have a good chance of detecting this type of object way out there – if it exists — even if the predictions have nothing to do with the real object.

“This is something that people will absolutely be looking for when the data are released,” Brown said, “and, indeed, the WISE team is undoubtedly already looking for — not because of the prediction, but simply because it’s the right way to search this unknown region of the solar system!”

So don’t worry about the International Astronomical Union having to confirm or name a new planet in our solar system, at least for now.

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Aqua4U
Member
February 16, 2011 10:47 PM

It would be VERY interesting to find such an object under Sol’s influence especially if proven to have been formed near another star…. but the size of Neptune? Good luck on that!

Aqua4U
Member
February 16, 2011 10:49 PM

Oops… “a large planet four times the mass of Jupiter…”

Greg
Member
Greg
February 16, 2011 8:07 PM
I have been eagerly awaiting the release of the WISE data for just this kind of reason. A Jupiter mass object, if it exists could release enough internal heat to have been detected by WISE. I like the Matese and Whitmire article in that they are giving a prediction of where to look for such an object. There is always a flurry of such predictions before data from an important instrument is reelased.This at least makes the search a more exciting one. I don’t think anyone truly knows the odds of there being such an object at such a distant orbit (50k AU in this instance), but I am in the camp that it is likely. The prevailing… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
February 17, 2011 12:18 AM
I think Brown makes a very good argument, as most always. I briefly looked at the paper and my beef, apart from “crummy” statistics, is that they predict and test a model dependent statistic. And they do that at a bayesian ratio of max 10, I believe, so not really 3 sigma certainty. They admit they fail to predict the inner Oort cloud statistics, and they admit that there are what I gathered more main stream models that predict the usual statistics better. In my eyes the paper is thrice removed from usual prediction in the first case (predict internal phenomena, test model using bayesian likelihoods instead of test data on frequentist observations, not enough certainty to test),… Read more »
Greg
Member
Greg
February 18, 2011 8:33 PM
This might be a minor point, but worth debating. I have alluded to it in previous posts. It regards the IAU definition of a dwarf planet including the criterion that a planet must clear its neighborhood/orbit. If a large planet is found orbiting within the oort cloud, there may be no way for that to happen. At such a distance the orbital period will be immense. Also there are a large number of smaller objects who’s orbits will be perturbed into this planet’s orbital zone before it completes an orbit. Worse yet, there will not be any way to prove that the orbit of such a distant planet really has been cleared. I believe that once such objects… Read more »
Greg
Member
Greg
February 18, 2011 8:45 PM

An even better debate that I don’t hear much of is how to separate twin/double/binary planets from a planet and moon. Should a ratio of mass or diameter be used? The present definition in unofficial and that is that the barycenter (center of gravity) should be above the surface of both planets. I believe it is time that the IAU state this definition, rather than react hurriedly only when it becomes necessary.

Jim
Member
Jim
February 17, 2011 8:03 AM

I’m assuming the only way for a planet to be out there is for it to be a rogue planet from another star. Am I right or wrong here?

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
February 17, 2011 10:10 AM

I would not hold my breath on this. However, it is not impossible. If such a planet exists it might suggest there is a distribution of bodies through interstellar space. Microlensing has found brown dwarfs in interstellar space, so there might also as well be planets.

LC

Question
Member
Question
February 18, 2011 12:03 AM

…a very likely possibility.

papayaman
Member
papayaman
February 17, 2011 10:58 AM

It’d be really cool to find another gas giant modulating the Oort cloud, but desire alone without evidence has no bearing on if this planet actually exists.

Nexus
Member
February 17, 2011 12:46 PM
I suppose any rogue planets out there would have been either ejected from solar systems, or formed on their own in molecular clouds just like stars do but on a smaller scale. If there is a planet in the outer reaches of the Solar System, then I’m guessing it must be either a captured rogue or formed in the inner Solar System and migrated way out there. The second one is not such an unbelievable concept. Our current belief regarding the Oort cloud is that most of those comets formed closer in and were flung further out by the planets. Then their orbits were modified to be more circular by the gravitational influence of other stars. Well, if… Read more »
Manu
Member
Manu
February 17, 2011 1:09 PM

Let’s remember that the Oort cloud itself is yet to be discovered.
Not a single object with a more or less circular orbit at those distances has been found.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oort_cloud :
“only four currently known trans-Neptunian objects—90377 Sedna, 2000 CR105, 2006 SQ372, and 2008 KV42—are considered possible members of the inner Oort cloud”
and these have extremely eccentric orbits, so are problematic.

Greg
Member
Greg
February 18, 2011 12:40 AM
We can reasonably infer that the oort cloud exists by measuring the number of objects in long period orbits. This comet data is what Matese and Whitmire are trying to extrapolate from. The biggest and most interesting objects discovered to date are Sedna and 2006 SQ372, with the latter being the most interesting. Just for the record I don’t consider this article to be much more than a wild guess, and attempt at fame and posterity if by some slim chance they are right. Nevertheless it is skillful manipulation of the mainstream media, and in this case it should spark the imagination the general public about the WISE mission, which is a good thing. To elaborate a bit… Read more »
Dark Gnat
Member
Dark Gnat
February 17, 2011 2:14 PM

I wouldn’t be surprised if there are planets or planemos out there.

I’m betting that there are far more planemos than stars anyway, especially brown dwarfs and gas giants. Many of these probably formed in star forming regions, but never gained enough mass to sustain fusion. Smaller ones might have been ejected via gravitational interactions during system formations. These objects would be quite difficult to detect.

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
February 21, 2011 1:51 PM

Difficult to detect – so we could call the Oort cloud population “problemos”, huh?

marlon
Member
marlon
February 17, 2011 3:29 PM

of course there is a giant planet just outside or near the boundaries of our solar system. NASA says no and say yes later. for example: no water on moon, there is now, no water on mars, there is now, there are no habitable planets other than earth, there are so many now, etc. etc. etc.. they keep on fooling us as though as we are fools.

Manu
Member
Manu
February 17, 2011 3:34 PM

NASA says no money: plenty money now!!!!

alcyone
Member
alcyone
February 17, 2011 6:21 PM

@ marlon

Science and discovery can be a painstaking, time-consuming, sometimes indirect process. Apart from that, your post reveals more about you than it does about NASA.

@ Manu

Manu says no fact: plenty fact now following: It looks like they will be getting a small reduction in their budget. We will finally know when congress votes on it.

Aqua4U
Member
February 21, 2011 2:04 PM
Aqua4U
Member
February 21, 2011 2:05 PM

ON the 20th that is….

eris
Member
eris
February 21, 2011 1:14 PM
It’s a red dwarf. There I called it first To speak from the avid enthusiast yet technically uneducated sector (unless you count the whole Universe series on Netflix plus countless blogs..) on the conspiracy theories ~ Astronomers/physicists are not arguing the fact of there potentially being SOMETHING out there.. But NO they most certainly have NOT found it yet! The reason they are arguing so much is because they want to be credited as the first one to find IT. It’s bs to say data on the comets trajectories are inconclusive because you don’t need that data to prove there is obviously something pulling the outer objects towards a perpendicular ellipses to that of the inner herd and… Read more »
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