Planet 9 Search Turning Up Wealth Of New Objects

In 2014, Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Chadwick Trujillo of Northern Arizona University proposed an interesting idea. Noting the similarities in the orbits of distant Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), they postulated that a massive object was likely influencing them. This was followed in 2016 by Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown of Caltech suggesting that an undiscovered planet was the culprit.

Since that time, the hunt has been on for the infamous “Planet 9” in our Solar System. And while no direct evidence has been produced, astronomers believe they are getting closer to discerning its location. In a paper that was recently accepted by The Astronomical Journal, Sheppard and Trujillo present their latest discoveries, which they claim are further constraining the location of Planet 9.

For the sake of their study, Sheppard and Trujillo relied on information obtained by the Dark Energy Camera on the Victor Blanco 4-meter telescope in Chile and the Japanese Hyper Suprime-Camera on the 8-meter Subaru Telescope in Hawaii. With the help of David Tholen from the University of Hawaii, they have been conducting the largest deep-sky survey for objects beyond Neptune and the Kuiper Belt.

An illustration of the orbits of the new and previously known extremely distant Solar System objects. The clustering of most of their orbits indicates that they are likely be influenced by something massive and very distant, the proposed Planet X. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Science
An illustration of the orbits of the new and previously known extremely distant Solar System objects – showing the clustering in orbits that indicates that possible presence of Planet X. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Science

This survey is intended to find more objects that show the same clustering in their orbits, thus offering greater evidence that a massive planet exists in the outer Solar System. As Sheppard explained in a recent Carnegie press release:

“Objects found far beyond Neptune hold the key to unlocking our Solar System’s origins and evolution. Though we believe there are thousands of these small objects, we haven’t found very many of them yet, because they are so far away. The smaller objects can lead us to the much bigger planet we think exists out there. The more we discover, the better we will be able to understand what is going on in the outer Solar System.”

Their most recent discovery was a small collection of more extreme objects who’s peculiar orbits differ from the extreme and inner Oort cloud objects, in terms of both their eccentricities and semi-major axes. As with discoveries made using other instruments, these appear to indicate the presence of something massive effecting their orbits.

All of these objects have been submitted to the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Minor Planet Center for designation. They include 2014 SR349, an extreme TNO that has similar orbital characteristics as the previously-discovered extreme bodies that led Sheppard and Trujillo to infer the existence of a massive object in the region.

Another is 2014 FE72, an object who’s orbit is so extreme that it reaches about 3000 AUs from the Sun in a massively-elongated ellipse – something which can only be explained by the influence of a strong gravitational force beyond our Solar System. And in addition to being the first object observed at such a large distance, it is also the first distant Oort Cloud object found to orbit entirely beyond Neptune.

Artist's impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune's orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. The sky view and appearance are based on the conjectures of its co-proposer, Mike Brown.
Artist’s impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

And then there’s  2013 FT28, which is similar but also different from the other extreme objects. For instance, 2013 FT28 shows similar clustering in terms of its semi-major axis, eccentricity, inclination, and argument of perihelion angle, but is different when it comes to its longitude of perihelion. This would seem to indicates that this particular clustering trend is less strong among the extreme TNOs.

Beyond the work of Sheppard and Trujillo, nearly 10 percent of the sky has now been explored by astronomers. Relying on the most advanced telescopes, they have revealed that there are several never-before-seen objects that orbit the Sun at extreme distances.

And as more distant objects with unexplained orbital parameters emerge, their interactions seem to fit with the idea of a massive distant planet that could pay a key role in the mechanics of the outer Solar System. However, as Sheppard has indicated, there really isn’t enough evidence yet to draw any conclusions.

“Right now we are dealing with very low-number statistics, so we don’t really understand what is happening in the outer Solar System,” he said. “Greater numbers of extreme trans-Neptunian objects must be found to fully determine the structure of our outer Solar System.”

Alas, we don’t yet know if Planet 9 is out there, and it will probably be many more years before confirmation can be made. But by looking to the visible objects that present a possible sign of its path, we are slowly getting closer to it. With all the news in exoplanet hunting of late, it is interesting to see that we can still go hunting in our own backyard!

Further Reading: The Astrophysical Journal Letters

19 Replies to “Planet 9 Search Turning Up Wealth Of New Objects”

  1. The Universe is a big place. Our own galaxy is a big place. Heck, even our own solar system is a big place. So for any object in our solar system, collisions are now rare. Any chance some of these weird orbits exists because of close calls to other smaller objects? Maybe we should first rule out orbits like these so that we are only looking at orbits caused by a substantially large gravity source. Not everything is we see is because of a large “Planet 9.”

  2. Please use the traditional term for hypothesized but undiscovered planets, which is “Planet X” when referring to this object. “X” here refers to it being “unknown,” not to the Roman numeral 10. If this object exists, it is more like the solar system’s 19th planet than its ninth.

    1. No thank you. I will use the proper designation which is in keeping with current naming conventions and the definition of planet – which is Planet 9. Now please stop asking.

      1. So, Mr Williams, I must venture that you , personally , are refuting all the new information that is continuing to be brought back by the New Horizon’s Spacecraft?
        Sure sounds like it to me…

        According to you, Mr Williams, our own Earth is NOT a Planet, going by the 10 year old , crazy, confused IAU definiton of “Planet” that many Planetary Scientists and other Astronomers just do not agree with.

        As a true Astronomer (one who has actually discovered something) I would like to point out that “Political Correctness” maybe ok in the secular world, but in the Astronomical World, we deal with facts, not

      2. The current definition is not based on “Political Correctness” sir, that is absurb. It is an attempt to bring consistency to planetary designations, rather than relying on a confusing system that claimed Pluto was a planet while Ceres and newly discovered KBOs were somehow not. What’s more, people who don’t agree with the IAU decision like to claim Earth is no longer a planet in accordance with that.

        This too is absurd. NEOs do not “share” there orbit with Earth the way KBOs and asteroids share their orbits with Pluto and Ceres, respectively. Like Jupiter and its Greeks and Trojans, Earth’s gravity dominates the NEOs. This argument is paper thin and I would think an astronomer would see the distinction. And no, I’m not refuting any of the information from the New Horizons probe. We’ve followed up on that consistently, and it has not offered information to refute the IAU classification.

        Lastly, qualifying your opinions as those of a “true astronomer” seems awfully questionable. Simply discovering something does not lend personal opinions more weight. But for my own interest’s sake, what exactly did you discover?

      3. Actually, advocates of the geophysical planet definition consider both Ceres and Pluto, as well as all KBOs large enough to be spherical, to be planets because they base planet status on an object not being a star and attaining hydrostatic equilibrium. You may not agree with this definition, but it does not have the inconsistency you describe above.

      4. Well Mr Williams, you can say anything you want, but that doesn’t mean you are correct. I side with Dr Alan Stern , The New Horizons Staff and many other Planetary Scientists, Amateur and Professional Astronomers. Now as to the question of Astronomical Discovery, who are you to say anything? Astronomy, is still very much an observational science and anyone who has a Telescope, can discover just as I have done and since you have not made any discovery, you really have no legs to stand on:) And you might not want to go there anyway…I’m just one of many Amateurs who have made discoveries stretching back over hundreds of years.

      5. Furthermore, as to my discovery, it took me many months to confirm that I had indeed discovered. researching with many Amateurs and Professionals to come to that conclusion. You can read some of that via Tammy Plotner’s Universe Today article on The Basketball Player in The Moon, which sadly, you didn’t even attempt to look at. IF you would have looked at it you would know that I did my homework here, just as anyone who was trying to determine if they found a new comet. My discovery was confirmed by Bill Dembowski, past Coordinator of Lunar Topographical Studies..ALPO (Published in the August 2008 Edition of “The Lunar Observer”), Steve Nathan, Co Chair of The Astronomical League’s Lunar Club, Dr Chuck Wood, Sky & Telescope Magazine, NASA Astronomer Dr Tony Phillips of, Dave Eicher, Astronomy Magazine as well as Steve O’Meara of Sky & Telescope and Astronomy Magazines. And , recently Alan MacRobert of Sky & Telescope Magazine.

      6. “As a true Astronomer (one who has actually discovered something) I would like to point out…” that I understand more about planetary astronomy than the 10181 astronomers currently enrolled in the IAU.

        That’s basically what you’re saying, which is absurd.

      7. Only 424 IAU members took part in the 2006 vote, and most of them were not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers.

      8. Yes well, you can say anything, but that doesn’t mean you are right. I have discovered and you have not. IF you had, you might well understand how Dr Clyde Tombaugh felt! In any event, I side with Dr Alan Stern , as well as many other Professional and Amateur Astronomers and The New Horizons Staff. Just because something is new and just because many others say something, doesn’t make it true.

      9. There is no proper designation or naming convention for objects that have not yet been discovered. Mike Brown unilaterally called this hypothetical world “Planet 9,” largely to further his own personal agenda.

      10. No he didn’t. Unlike some people, he doesn’t have a personal agenda regarding this because he’s a professional and not an overly emotional crank all tied up in something as basic as simple classifications. Just because YOU have a personal agenda about something as insignificant and silly as this doesn’t mean the people that are doing this for actual scientific reasons, like trying to keep object classification from getting too messy, do. You’re wrong. Simple as that. Get over it.

      11. “You may not agree with this definition, but it does not have the inconsistency you describe above.” That seems awfully ironic coming from someone who claims the IAU definition of planet is confused or vague because SHE does not agree with it. It’s especially ironic since you claim there’s no “proper designation” based on your rejection of the current one. I don’t know how else to say this to you Laurel, but we will never represent your position on this issue and it is hypocritical of you to keep asking us to. This shall be our final communique.

      12. Someday, Mr Williams, Dr Stern, The New Horizon’s Team, Ms Kornfeld and I and countless others , will be vindicated. I look forward to that day.

      13. That seems highly doubtful. The only way you could be vindicated is if we decide to deem that all Ceres and all KBOs are planets. That would not only be foolish, but very impractical. Refusing to let go of the past and embrace change is not something that leads to vindication. It leads to be left behind.

  3. Even if the various teams fail to uncover another massive planet in our Solar System, the additional discoveries of highly eccentric orbits of TNOs is fascinating science in and of itself. Especially if there isn’t a large body to explain them.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t there theorized to have been a relatively close pass by another star in the last billion years or so? (Barnard’s Star, I believe, but I could very well be incorrect.) Is it possible that this passing star could be the cause of the perturbations observed in these orbits? Or maybe that the theorized planet could have been captured from the star’s system?

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