Last month, planetary scientists Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin of the California Institute of Technology found evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer Solar System. Nicknamed Planet Nine, it’s estimated to be 10 times more massive than Earth with a diameter as large as 16,000 miles (25,750 km). The putative planet orbits about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than Neptune or some 56 billion miles away; at that tremendous distance it would take between 10,000 and 20,000 years to complete one orbit around the Sun.
Planet Nine’s existence is inferred through mathematical modeling and computer simulations based on the clustering of six remote asteroids in the Kuiper Belt, a vast repository of icy asteroids and comets beyond Neptune. Brown and Batyginsay there’s only a 0.007% chance or about 1 in 15,000 that the clustering could be a coincidence.
All well and good. But with such an enormous orbit, astronomers face the daunting task of searching vast swaths of space for this needle in a haystack. Where to begin? A study done by a team of French scientists may help narrow the search. In a recent paper appearing in Astronomy and Astrophysics, astronomer Agnes Fienga and colleagues looked at what effect a large Kuiper Belt planet would have on the orbits of other planets in the Solar System, focusing their study on Saturn. Thanks to NASA’s Cassini orbiter, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, we can precisely calculate Saturn’s position along its orbit.
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Based on the planet’s “residuals”, the difference between the calculated position of Saturn versus what was actually observed, the team was able to exclude two sections of its potential orbit and home in on “probable” swath and a much larger “possible” section of the orbit. The process may sound familiar, since it was the one used to discover another planet more than 150 years ago — Neptune. Back then, irregularities (residuals) in the motion of Uranus led astronomers in 1847 to predict a more distant 8th planet as the cause. On September 24, 1846, Johann Galle discovered Neptune only 1° from its position predicted by French mathematician Urbain LeVerrier.
While the current solution for Planet Nine doesn’t come anywhere near as close, it’s a step in the right direction.