Planet 9

New Evidence for Our Solar System’s Ghost: Planet Nine

Does another undetected planet languish in our Solar System’s distant reaches? Does it follow a distant orbit around the Sun in the murky realm of comets and other icy objects? For some researchers, the answer is “almost certainly.”

The case for Planet Nine (P9) goes back at least as far as 2016. In that year, astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin published evidence pointing to its existence. Along with colleagues, they’ve published other work supporting P9 since then.

There’s lots of evidence for the existence of P9, but none of it has reached the threshold of definitive proof. The main evidence concerns the orbits of Extreme Trans-Neptunian Objects (ETNOs). They exhibit a peculiar clustering that indicates a massive object. P9 might be shepherding these objects along on their orbits.

This orbital diagram shows Planet Nine (lime green colour, labelled “P9”) and several extreme trans-Neptunian objects. Each background square is 100 AU across. Image Credit: By Tomruen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68955415

The names Brown and Batygin, both Caltech astronomers, come up often in regard to P9. Now, they’ve published another paper along with colleagues Alessandro Morbidelli and David Nesvorny, presenting more evidence supporting P9.

It’s titled “Generation of Low-Inclination, Neptune-Crossing TNOs by Planet Nine.” It’s published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“The solar system’s distant reaches exhibit a wealth of anomalous dynamical structure, hinting at the presence of a yet-undetected, massive trans-Neptunian body—Planet Nine (P9),” the authors write. “Previous analyses have shown how orbital evolution induced by this object can explain the origins of a broad assortment of exotic orbits.”

To dig deeper into the issue, Batygin, Brown, Morbidelli, and Nesvorny examined Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) with more conventional orbits. They carried out N-body simulations of these objects that included everything from the tug of giant planets and the Galactic Tide to passing stars.

29 objects in the Minor Planet Database have well-characterized orbits with a > 100 au, inclinations < 40°, and q (perihelia) < 30 au. Of those 29, 17 have well-quantified orbits. The researchers focused their simulations on these 17.

This figure from the research shows the 17 planets, their orbits, their perihelions, semi-major axes, and their inclinations. Image Credit: Batygin et al. 2024.

The researchers’ goal was to analyze these objects’ origins and determine if they could be used as a probe for P9. To accomplish this, they conducted two separate sets of simulations. One set with P9 in the Solar System and one set without.

The simulations began at t=300 million years, meaning 300 million years into the Solar System’s existence. At that time, “intrinsic dynamical evolution in the outer solar system is still in its infancy,” the authors explain, while enough time has passed for the Solar System’s birth cluster of stars to disperse and for the giant planets to have largely concluded their migrations. They ended up with about 2000 objects, or particles, in the simulation with perihelia greater than 30 au and semimajor axes between 100 and 5000 au. This ruled out all Neptune-crossing objects from the simulation’s starting conditions. “Importantly, this choice of initial conditions is inherently linked with the assumed orbit of P9,” they point out.

The figure below shows the evolution of some of the 2,000 objects in the simulations.

These panels show the evolution of selected particles within the calculations that attain nearly planar (i < 40°) Neptune-crossing orbits within the final 500 Myr of the integration. “Collectively, these examples indicate that P9-facilitated dynamics can naturally produce objects similar to those depicted in Figure 1” (the previous figure), the researchers explain. The top, middle, and bottom panels depict the time series of the semimajor axis, perihelion distance, and inclination, respectively. The rate of chaotic diffusion greatly increases when particles attain Neptune-crossing trajectories. Image Credit: Batygin et al. 2024.

These are interesting results, but the researchers point out that they in no way prove the existence of P9. These orbits could be generated by other things like the Galactic Tide. In their next step, they examined their perihelion distribution.

This figure from the research shows the perihelion distance for particles in a simulation with P9 (left) and without P9 (right.) The P9-free simulation shows a “rapid decline in perihelion distribution with decreasing q, as Neptune’s orbit forms a veritable dynamical barrier,” the researchers explain. Image Credit: Batygin et al. 2024.

“Accounting for observational biases, our results reveal that the orbital architecture of this group of objects aligns closely with the predictions of the P9-inclusive model,” the authors write. “In stark contrast, the P9-free scenario is statistically rejected at a ~5? confidence level.”

The authors point out that something other than P9 could be causing the orbital unruliness. The star was born in a cluster, and cluster dynamics could’ve set these objects on their unusual orbits before the cluster dispersed. A number of Earth-mass rogue planets could also be responsible, influencing the outer Solar System’s architecture for a few hundred million years before being removed somehow.

However, the authors chose their 17 TNOs for a reason. “Due to their low inclinations and perihelia, these objects experience rapid orbital chaos and have short dynamical lifetimes,” the authors write. That means that whatever is driving these objects into these orbits is ongoing and not a relic from the past.

An important result of this work is that it results in falsifiable predictions. And we may not have to wait long for the results to be tested. “Excitingly, the dynamics described here, along with all other lines of evidence for P9, will soon face a rigorous test with the operational commencement of the VRO (Vera Rubin Observatory),” the authors write.

A drone’s view of the Rubin Observatory under construction in 2023. The 8.4-meter is getting closer to completion and first light in 2025. The Observatory could provide answers to many outstanding issues, like the existence of Planet Nine. Image Credit: Rubin Observatory/NSF/AURA/A. Pizarro D

If P9 is real, what is it? It could be the core of a giant planet ejected during the Solar System’s early days. It could be a rogue planet that drifted through interstellar space until being caught up in our Solar System’s gravitational milieu. Or it could be a planet that formed on a distant orbit, and a passing star shepherded it into its eccentric orbit. If astronomers can confirm P9’s existence, the next question will be, ‘what is it?’

If you’re interested at all in how science operates, the case of P9 is very instructive. Eureka moments are few and far between in modern astronomy. Evidence mounts incrementally, accompanied by discussion and counterpoint. Objections are raised and inconsistencies pointed out, then methods are refined and thinking advances. What began as one over-arching question is broken down into smaller, more easily-answered ones.

But the big question dominates for now and likely will for a while longer: Is there a Planet Nine?

Stay tuned.

Evan Gough

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