The Latest Images of Ultima Thule are in, and they are the Sharpest Yet!

On December 31st, 2018, the New Horizons probe conducted the first flyby in history of a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). Roughly half an hour later, the mission controllers were treated to the first clear images of Ultima Thule (aka. 2014 MU69). Over the course of the next two months, the first high-resolution images of the object were released, as well as some rather interesting findings regarding the KBOs shape.

Just recently, NASA released more new images of Ultima Thule, and they are the clearest and most detailed to date! The images were taken as part of what the mission team described as a “stretch goal”, an ambitious objective to take pictures of Ultima Thule mere minutes before the spacecraft made its closest approach. And as you can no doubt tell from the pictures NASA provided, mission accomplished!

Continue reading “The Latest Images of Ultima Thule are in, and they are the Sharpest Yet!”

A Disc of Icy Material, not Planet 9, Might Explain the Strange Movements in the Outer Solar System

Could a disk of icy material be responsible for the strange orbits of distand objects in our Solar System? Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Is there or isn’t there a Planet 9? Is there a planet way out on the outskirts of our Solar System, with sufficient mass to explain the movements of distant objects? Or is a disc of icy material responsible? There’s no direct evidence yet of an actual Planet 9, but something with sufficient mass is affecting the orbits of distant Solar System objects.

A new study suggests that a disc of icy material causes the strange movements of outer Solar System objects, and that we don’t need to invent another planet to explain those movements. The study comes from
Professor Jihad Touma, from the American University of Beirut, and
Antranik Sefilian, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Their results are published in the Astronomical Journal.

Continue reading “A Disc of Icy Material, not Planet 9, Might Explain the Strange Movements in the Outer Solar System”

It Might Not be Planet 9 Causing Disruptions in the Kuiper Belt, Just the Collective Gravity of Everything Out There

In January of 2016, astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin published the first evidence that there might be another planet in our Solar System. Known as “Planet 9” (or “Planet X”, to those who contest the controversial 2006 Resolution by the IAU), this hypothetical body was believed to orbit at an extreme distance from our Sun, as evidenced by the fact that certain Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) all seem to be pointing in the same direction.

Since that time, other lines of evidence have emerged that have bolstered the existence of Planet 9/Planet X. However, a team of researchers from CU Boulder recently proposed an alternative explanation. According to their research, it could be interactions between Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) themselves that might explain the strange dynamics of “detached objects” at the edge of the Solar System.

The researchers presented their findings at the 232nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which ran from June 3-7 in Denver, Colorado. The presentation took place on June 4th during a press conference titled “Minor Planets, Dwarf Planets & Exoplanets”. The research was led Jacob Fleisig, an undergraduate studying astrophysics at CU Boulder, and included Ann-Marie Madigan and Alexander Zderic – an assistant professor and a graduate student at CU Boulder, respectively.

Artist’s conception of Sedna, a dwarf planet in the Solar System that only gets within 76 astronomical units (AUs) of our Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the sake of their study, the team focused on icy bodies like Sedna, a minor planet that orbits the Sun at a distance ranging from 76 AU at perihelion to 936 AU at aphelion. Along with a handful of other objects at this distance, such as Eris, Sedna appears to be separated from the rest of the Solar System – something which astronomers have struggled to explain ever since it was discovered.

Sedna was also discovered by Michael Brown who, along with Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory and David Rabinowitz of Yale University, spotted it on November 14th, 2003, while conducting a survey of the Kuiper Belt. In addition to orbiting our Sun with a period of over 11,000 years, this minor planet and other detached objects has a huge, elliptical orbit.

What’s more, this orbit does not take them Sedna or these other objects anywhere near to Neptune or any other gas giant. Unlike Pluto and other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), it is therefore a mystery how they achieved their current orbits. The possible existence of a as-yet-undiscovered planet (Planet 9/Planet X), which would be about 10 times the size of Earth, is one hypothetical explanation.

After years of searching for this planet and attempting to determine where its orbit would take it, astronomers have yet to find Planet 9/Planet X. However, as Prof. Madigan explained in a recent CU Boulder press release, there is another possible explanation for the gravitational weirdness going on out there:

“There are so many of these bodies out there. What does their collective gravity do? We can solve a lot of these problems by just taking into account that question… Once you get further away from Neptune, things don’t make any sense, which is really exciting.”

While Madigan and her team did not originally set out to find another explanation for the orbits of “detached objects”, they ended up pursuing the possibility thanks to Jacob Fleisig’s computer modelling. While developing simulations to explore the dynamics of the detached objects, he noticed something very interesting about the region of space they occupy.

Having calculated the orbits of icy objects beyond Neptune, Fleisig and the rest of the team noticed that different objects behave much like the different hands on a clock. Whereas asteroids move like the minute hand (relatively fast and in tandem), larger objects like Sedna move more slowly like the hour hand. Eventually, the hands intersect.  As Fleisig explained:

“You see a pileup of the orbits of smaller objects to one side of the sun. These orbits crash into the bigger body, and what happens is those interactions will change its orbit from an oval shape to a more circular shape.”

What Fleisig’s computer model showed was that Sedna’s orbit goes from normal to detached as a result of those small-scale interactions. It also showed that the larger the detached object, the farther it gets away from the Sun – something which agrees with previous research and observations. In addition to explaining why Sedna and similar bodies behave the way they do, these findings may provide clues to another major event in Earth’s history.

Artistic rendition of the Chicxulub impactor striking ancient Earth, which is believed to have caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Credit: NASA

This would be what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Astronomers have understood for a long time that the dynamics of the outer Solar System often end up sending comets towards the inner Solar System on a predictable timescale. This is the result of icy objects interacting with each other, which causes their orbits to tighten and widen in a repeating cycle.

And while the team is not able to say that this pattern was responsible for the impact that caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (which resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago), it is a fascinating possibility. In the meantime, the research has shown just how fascinating the outer Solar System is, and how much remains to be learned about it.

“The picture we draw of the outer solar system in textbooks may have to change,” said Madigan. “There’s a lot more stuff out there than we once thought, which is really cool.”

The research was made possible thanks to the support of the NASA Solar System Workings and the Rocky Mountain Advanced Computing Consortium Summit Supercomputer.

Further Reading: University of Colorado Boulder

New Horizons Just Took a Record Breaking Image. No Camera Has Ever Taken a Picture From This Far From Earth

In July of 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with Pluto. In the course of conducting its flyby, the probe gathered volumes of data about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere and system of moons. It also provided breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, mountain chains, and it’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.

Since that time, New Horizons has carried on to the Kuiper Belt for the sake of conducting more historic encounters. In preparation for these, the probe also established new records when it used its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to take a series of long-distance pictures. These images, which have since been released to the public, have set the new record for the most distant images ever taken.

At present, the New Horizons probe is at a distance of 6.12 billion km (3.79 billion mi) from Earth. This means that images taken at this point are at a distance of 40.9 Astronomical Units (AUs), or the equivalent of about 41 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. This it slightly farther than the “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth, which was snapped by the Voyager 1 mission when it was at a distance of 6.06 billion km (3.75 billion mi; 40.5 AU) from Earth.

Image of the “Wishing Well” star cluster, taken Dec. 5, 2017, which temporarily broke the 27-year record set by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This historic picture was taken on February 14th, 1990 (Valentine’s Day) at the behest of famed astronomer Carl Sagan. At the time, Sagan was a member of the Voyager imaging team, and he recommended that Voyager 1 take the opportunity to look back at Earth one more time before making its way to the very edge of the Solar System. For more than 27 years, this long-distance record remained unchallenged.

However, in December of 2017, the New Horizons team began conducting a routine calibration test of the LORRI instrument. This consisted of snapping pictures of the “Wishing Well” cluster (aka. the “Football Cluster” or NGC 3532), an open galactic star cluster that is located about 1321 light years from Earth in the direction of the southern constellation of Carina.

This image (shown above) was rather significant, given that this star cluster was the first target ever observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (on May 20th, 1990). While this image broke the long-distance record established by Voyager 1, the probe then turned its LORRI instrument towards objects in its flight path. As part of the probes mission to rendezvous with a KBO, the team was searching for forward-scattering rings or dust.

As a result, just two hours after it had taken the record-breaking image of the “Wishing Well” star cluster, the probe snapped pictures of the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) known as 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 (seen below, left and right). These images once again broke the record for being the most distant images taken from Earth (again), but also set a new record for the closest-ever images ever taken of KBOs.

False-color images of KBOs 2012 HZ84 (left) and 2012 HE85, taken by LORRI, are the farthest from Earth ever captured by a spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

As Dr. Alan Stern, the Principle Investigator of the New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), explained in a NASA press release:

“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts — first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched. And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”

As one of only five spacecraft to travel beyond the Outer Planets, New Horizons has set a number of other distance records as well. These include the most-distant course-correction maneuver, which took place on Dec. 9th, 2017, and guided the spacecraft towards its planned flyby with the KBO 2014 MU69. This event, which will happen on Jan. 1st, 2019, will be the farthest planetary encounter in history.

In the course of its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, the New Horizons team seeks to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and “Centaurs” – i.e. former KBOs that have unstable orbits that cause them to cross the orbit of the gas giants. At present, the New Horizons spacecraft is in hibernation and will be brought back online on June 4th, – when it will begin a series of checks to make sure it is ready for its planned encounter with MU69.

The spacecraft is also conducting nearly continuous measurements of the Kuiper Belt itself to learn more about its plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment. These efforts could reveal much about the formation and evolution of the Solar System, and are setting records that are not likely to be broken for many more decades!

Further Reading: NASA

New Clues Emerge for the Existence of Planet 9

Artist's impression of Planet Nine, blocking out the Milky Way. The Sun is in the distance, with the orbit of Neptune shown as a ring. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

Planet 9 cannot hide forever, and new research has narrowed the range of possible locations further! In January of 2016, astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin published the first evidence that there might be another planet in our Solar System. Known as “Planet 9” (“Planet X” to some), this hypothetical body was believed to orbit at an extreme distance from our Sun, as evidenced by the orbits of certain extreme Kuiper Belt Objects (eKBOs).

Since that time, multiple studied have been produced that have attempted to place constraints on Planet 9’s location. The latest study once again comes from Brown and Batygin, who conducted an analytical assessment of all the processes that have indicated the presence of Planet 9 so far. Taken together, these indications show that the existence of this body is not only likely, but also essential to the Solar System as we know it.

The study, titled “Dynamical Evolution Induced by Planet Nine“, recently appeared online and has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal. Whereas previous studies have pointed to the behavior of various populations of KBOs as proof of Planet 9, Brown and Batygin sought to provide a coherent theoretical description of the dynamical mechanisms responsible for these effects.

In the end, they concluded that it would be more difficult to imagine a Solar System without a Planet 9 than with one. As Konstantin Batygin explained in a recent NASA press statement:

“There are now five different lines of observational evidence pointing to the existence of Planet Nine. If you were to remove this explanation and imagine Planet Nine does not exist, then you generate more problems than you solve. All of a sudden, you have five different puzzles, and you must come up with five different theories to explain them.”

In 2016, Brown and Batygin described the first three lines of observational evidence for Planet 9. These include six extreme Kuiper Belt Objects which follow highly elliptical paths around the Sun, which are indicative of an unseen mechanism affecting their orbit. Second is the fact that the orbits of these bodies are all tilted the same way – about 30° “downward” to the plane of the Kuiper Belt.

The third hint came in the form of computer simulations that included Planet 9 as part of the Solar System. Based to these simulations, it was apparent that more objects should be tilted with respect to the Solar plane, on the order of about 90 degrees. Thanks to their research, Brown and Batygin found five such objects that happened to fit this orbital pattern, and suspected that more existed.

Caltech professor Mike Brown and assistant professor Konstanin Batygin have been working together to investigate Planet Nine. Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech

Since the publication of the original paper, two more indications have emerged for the existence of Planet 9. Another involved the unexplained orbits of more Kuiper Belt Objects which were found to be orbiting in the opposite direction from everything else in the Solar System. This was a telltale indication that a relatively close body with a powerful gravitational force was affecting their orbits.

And then there was the argument presented in a second paper by the team – which was led by Elizabeth Bailey, Batygin’s graduate student. This study argued that Planet 9 was responsible for tilting the orbits of the Solar planets over the past 4.5 billion years. This not only provided additional evidence for Planet 9, but also answered a long standing mystery in astrophysics – why the planets are tilted 6 degrees relative to the Sun’s equator.

As Batygin indicated, all of this adds up to a solid case for the existence of a yet-to-discovered massive planet in the outer Solar System:

“No other model can explain the weirdness of these high-inclination orbits. It turns out that Planet Nine provides a natural avenue for their generation. These things have been twisted out of the solar system plane with help from Planet Nine and then scattered inward by Neptune.”

A predicted consequence of Planet Nine is that a second set of confined objects (represented in blue) should also exist. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Recent studies have also shed some light on how and where Planet 9 originated. Whereas some suggested that the planet moved to the edge of the Solar System after forming closer to the Sun, others have suggested that it might be an exoplanet that was captured early in the Solar System’s history. At present, the favored theory appears to be that it formed closer to the Sun and migrated outward over time.

Granted, there is not yet a scientific consensus when it comes to Planet 9 and other astronomers have offered other possible explanations for the evidence cited by Batygin and Brown. For instance, a recent analysis based on the Outer Solar System Origins Survey – which discovered more than 800 new Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) – suggests that the evidence could also be consistent with a random distribution of such objects.

In the meantime, all that remains is to find direct evidence of the planet. At present, Batygin and Brown are attempting to do just that, using the Subaru Telescope at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. The detection of this planet will not only settle the matter of whether or not it even exists, it will also help resolve a mystery that emerged in recent years thanks to the discovery of thousands of extra-solar planets.

In short, thanks to the discovery of 3,529 confirmed exoplanets in 2,633 solar systems, astronomers have noticed that statistically, the most likely types of planets are “Super-Earths” and “mini-Neptunes” – i.e. planets that are more massive than Earth but not more than about 10 Earth masses. If Planet 9 is confirmed to exist, which is estimated to have 10 times the Mass of Earth, then it could explain this discrepancy.

Planet 9, we know you’re out there and we will find you! Unless you’re not, in which case, disregard this message!

Further Reads: NASA

Beautiful Planetary Rings Are Dead Dwarf Planets! Dead Dwarf Planets!!!

In 1655, astronomer Christiaan Huygens became the first person to observe the beautiful ring system that surrounds Saturn. And while they are certainly the most spectacular, astronomers have since discovered that all the gas and ice giants of the Solar System (i.e. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) have their own system of rings.

These systems have remained a source of fascination for astronomers, largely because their origins are still something of a mystery. But thanks to a recent study by researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Kobe University, the origins of these rings may be solved. According to their study, the rings are pieces of Dwarf Planets that got torn off in passing, which were then ripped to pieces!

This research could help to resolve many of the burning questions about the ring systems around our system’s giant planets, as well as details about the Solar Systems past. For the sake of their study – titled “Ring Formation around Giant Planets by Tidal Disruption of a Single Passing Large Kuiper Belt Object” – the Japanese team of researchers considered a number of factors.

The Kuiper Belt was named in honor of Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who postulated a reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. The first Kuiper Belt object was discovered in 1992. We now know of more than a thousand objects there, and it's estimated it's home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL
The Kuiper Belt was named in honor of Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who postulated a reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. Credit: JHUAPL

First, they considered the diversity of the various ring systems in our Solar System. For instance, Saturn’s rings are massive (about 100,000 trillion kg!) and composed overwhelmingly (90-95%) of water ice. In contrast, the much less massive rings of Uranus and Neptune are composed of darker material, and are believed to have higher percentages of rocky material in them.

To shed some light on this, the team looked to the Nice Model – a theory of Solar System formation that states that the gas giant migrated to their present location during the Late Heavy Bombardment. This period took place between 4 and 3.8 billion years ago, and was characterized by a disproportionately high number of asteroids from Trans-Neptunian space striking planets in the Inner Solar System.

They then considered other recent models of Solar System formation which postulate that the giant planets experienced close encounters with Pluto-sized objects during this time. From this, they developed the theory that the rings could be the result of some of these objects getting trapped and ripped apart by the gas giants’ gravity. To test this theory, they performed a number of computer simulations to see what would happen in these instances.

As Ryuki Hyodo – a researcher at the Department of Planetology, Kobe University, and the lead author on the paper – told Universe Today via email:

“We performed two simulations. First, using SPH (Smoothed-particle hydrodynamics) simulations, we investigated tidal disruption of Pluto-sized objects during the close encounters with giant planets and calculated the amount of fragments that are captured around giant planets. We found enough mass/fragments to explain current rings is captured. Then, we performed the longer-term evolution of the captured mass/fragments by using N-body simulations. We found that the captured fragments can collide each other with destruction and form thin equatorial circular rings around giant planets.”

A composite image of Uranus in two infrared bands, showing the planet and its ring system. Picture taken by the Keck II telescope and released in 2007. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory (Marcos van Dam)
A composite image of Uranus in two infrared bands, showing the planet and its ring system. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory (Marcos van Dam)

The results of these simulation were  consistent with the mass of the ring systems observed around Saturn and Uranus. This included the inner regular satellites of both planets – which would have also been the product of the past encounters with KBOs. It also accounted for the differences in the rings’ composition, showing how the planet’s Roche limits can influence what kind of material can be effectively captured.

This study is especially significant because it offers verifiable evidence for one of the enduring mysteries of our Solar System. And as Hyodo points out, it could come in mighty handy when it comes time to examine extra-solar planetary systems as well.

“Our theory suggested that, in the past, we had two possible epochs to form rings,” he said. “One is during the planet accretion phase and the other is during the Late heavy bombardment. Also, our model is naturally applicable to other planetary systems. So, our theory predicts that exoplanets also have massive rings around them.”

In the meantime, some might find the idea that ring systems are the corpses of Dwarf Planets troublesome. But I think we can all agree, a Soylent Green allusion might be just a bit over the top!

Further Reading: arXiv

A New Dwarf Planet Joins The Solar System Family

The Kuiper Belt has been an endless source of discoveries over the course of the past decade. Starting with the dwarf planet Eris, which was first observed by a Palomar Observatory survey led by Mike Brown in 2003, many interesting Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) have been discovered, some of which are comparable in size to Pluto.

And according to a new report from the IAU Minor Planet Center, yet another body has been discovered beyond the orbit of Pluto. Officially designated as 2014 UZ224, this body is located about 14 billion km (90 AUs, or 8.5 billion miles) from the Sun. This dwarf planet is not only the latest member of the our Solar family, it is also the second-farthest body from our Sun with a stable orbit.

The discovery was made by David Gerdes, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Michigan, and various colleagues associated with at the Dark Energy Survey (DES) – a project which relies on the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. In the past, Gerdes’ research has focused on the detection of dark energy and the expansion of the Universe.

The DECam instrument, . Credit: noao.edu
The DECam instrument, shown before it was inserted into the Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Observatory. Credit: noao.edu

Towards this end, DES has spent the past five years surveying roughly one-eighth of the sky using the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), a 570-Megapixel camera mounted on the Victor M. Blanco telescope at Cerro Tololo. This instrument was commissioned by the US. Dept of Energy to conduct surveys of distant galaxies, and Dr. Gerdes had a hand in creating.

Not surprisingly, this same technology has also allowed for discoveries to be made at the edge of the Solar System. Two years ago, this is precisely what Gerdes challenged a group of undergraduate students to do (as part of a summer project). These students examined images taken by DES between 2013-2016 for indications of moving objects. Since that time, the analysis team has grown to include senior scientists, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students.

Whereas distant stars and galaxies would appear stationary in these images, distant TNOs showed up in different places over time – hence why are called “transients”. As Dr. Gerdes explains in his 2014 UZ224 Fact Sheet, which is available through his University of Michigan homepage:

“To identify transients, we used a technique known as “difference imaging”. When we take a new image, we subtract from it an image of the same area of the sky taken on a different night. Objects that don’t change disappear in this subtraction, and we’re left with only the transients… This process yields millions of transients, but only about 0.1% of them turn out to be distant minor planets. To find them, we must “connect the dots” and determine which transients are actually the same thing in different positions on different nights. There are many dots and MANY more possible ways to connect them.”

Images of 2014 UZ224, shown on three slides obtained by the DECam. Credit: David Gerdes/DES/University of Michigan
Images of 2014 UZ224, shown on three slides obtained by the DECam. Credit: David Gerdes/DES/University of Michigan

This was a difficult process. In addition to needing thousands of computers at Fermilab to process the hundreds of terabytes of data, the team had to write special programs to do it. Gerdes and his colleagues also relied on help from Professors Masao Sako and Gary Bernstein of the University of Pennsylvania, who contributed the key breakthroughs that allowed them to perform difference imaging over the entire survey area.

In the end, dozens of new Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) were discovered, one of which was 2014 UZ224. According to their observations, its diameter could be anywhere from 350 to 1200 km, and it takes 1,136 years to complete a single orbit of our Sun. For the sake of perspective, Pluto is 2370 km in diameter, and has an orbital period of 248 years.

Stephanie Hamilton, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, was personally involved with the project. Her role was to determine the size of 2014 UZ224, which was difficult from initial observations alone. As she told Universe Today via email:

“The object’s brightness in visible light alone depends both on its size and how reflective it is, so you can’t uniquely determine one of those properties without assuming a value for the other. Fortunately there’s a solution to that problem – the heat the object emits is also proportional to its size, so obtaining a thermal measurement in addition to the optical measurements means we would then be able to calculate the object’s size and albedo (reflectance) without having to assume one or the other.

“We were able to obtain an image of our object at a thermal wavelength using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. I am working on combining all of our data together to determine the size and albedo, and we expect to submit a paper on our results around mid-November or so.”

Artistic rendering shows the distant view from theoretical Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
Artistic rendering shows the distant view from theoretical Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

But as with all things related to “dwarf planets”, there has been some disagreement over this discovery. Given the dimensions of the object, there are some who question whether or not the label applies. But as Gerdes indicates on the Fact Sheet, this body fits most of the prerequisites:

“According to the official IAU guidelines, a dwarf planet must satisfy four criteria. It must a) orbit the sun (check!), b) not be a satellite (check!) c) not have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit (check!) and d) have enough mass to be round. It’s this last item that’s uncertain, and the only way for sure is to get a picture that’s detailed enough to actually see its shape. Nevertheless, an object over 400 km in diameter is likely to be round.”

Gerdes and his team expect to be busy, authoring the paper that will detail their findings, using the ALMA array to get more assessments of 2014 UZ224 size, and sifting through the data to look for more objects in the Kuiper Belt. This includes the fabled Planet 9, which astronomers have been seeking out for years.

Given its distance from the Sun, 2014 UZ224’s orbit would not be influenced by the presence of Planet 9, and is therefore of no help. However, Gerdes is optimistic that the evidence of this massive body is there in the data. Given time, and a lot of data-processing, they just might find it! In the meantime, this newly discovered object is likely to be the focal point of a lot of fascinating research.

“It’s an interesting object in its own right – distant objects like this are ‘cosmic leftovers’ from the primordial disk that gave birth to the solar system,” writes Gerdes. “By studying them and learning more about their distribution, orbital characteristics, sizes, and surface properties, we can learn more about the processes that gave birth to the solar system and ultimately to us.”

Further Reading: 2014 UZ224 Fact Sheet (University of Michigan)

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

Kuiper Belt Objects Point The Way To Planet 9

Artist's impression of Planet Nine, blocking out the Milky Way. The Sun is in the distance, with the orbit of Neptune shown as a ring. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

On January 20th, 2016, researchers Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown of Caltech announced that they had found evidence that hinted at the existence of a massive planet at the edge of the Solar System. Based on mathematical modeling and computer simulations, they predicted that this planet would be a super-Earth, two to four times Earth’s size and 10 times as massive. They also estimated that, given its distance and highly elliptical orbit, it would take 10,000 – 20,000 years to orbit the Sun.

Since that time, many researchers have responded with their own studies about the possible existence of this mysterious “Planet 9”. One of the latest comes from the University of Arizona, where a research team from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory have indicated that the extreme eccentricity of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) might indicate that they crossed paths with a massive planet in the past.

For some time now, it has been understood that there are a few known KBOs who’s dynamics are different than those of other belt objects. Whereas most are significantly controlled by the gravity of the gas giants planets in their current orbits (particularly Neptune), certain members of the scattered disk population of the Kuiper Belt have unusually closely-spaced orbits.

The six most distant known objects in the solar system with orbits exclusively beyond Neptune (magenta), including Sedna (dark magenta), all mysteriously line up in a single direction. Also, when viewed in three dimensions, they tilt nearly identically away from the plane of the solar system. Another population of Kuiper belt objects (cyan) are forced into orbits that are perpendicular to the plane of the solar system and clustered in orientation. Batygin and Brown show that a planet with 10 times the mass of the earth in a distant eccentric orbit (orange) anti-aligned with the magenta orbits and perpendicular to the cyan orbits is required to maintain this configuration. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
The orbits of Neptune (magenta), Sedna (dark magenta), a series of Kuiper belt objects (cyan), and the hypothetical Planet 9 (orange). Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

When Batygin and Brown first announced their findings back in January, they indicated that these objects instead appeared to be highly clustered with respect to their perihelion positions and orbital planes. What’s more, their calculation showed that the odds of this being a chance occurrence were extremely low (they calculated a probability of 0.007%).

Instead, they theorized that it was a distant eccentric planet that was responsible for maintaining the orbits of these KBOs. In order to do this, the planet in question would have to be over ten times as massive as Earth, and have an orbit that lay roughly on the same plane (but with a perihelion oriented 180° away from those of the KBOs).

Such a planet not only offered an explanation for the presence of high-perihelion Sedna-like objects – i.e. planetoids that have extremely eccentric orbits around the Sun. It would also help to explain where distant and highly inclined objects in the outer Solar System come from, since their origins have been unclear up until this point.

In a paper titled “Coralling a distant planet with extreme resonant Kuiper belt objects“, the University of Arizona research team – which included Professor Renu Malhotra, Dr. Kathryn Volk, and Xianyu Wang – looked at things from another angle. If in fact Planet 9 were crossing paths with certain high-eccentricity KBOs, they reasoned, it was a good bet that its orbit was in resonance with these objects.

Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

To break it down, small bodies are ejected  from the Solar System all the time due to encounters with larger objects that perturb their orbits. In order to avoid being ejected, smaller bodies need to be protected by orbital resonances. While the smaller and larger objects may pass within each others’ orbital path, they are never close enough that they would able to exert a significant influence on each other.

This is how Pluto has remained a part of the Solar System, despite having an eccentric orbit that periodically cross Neptune’s path. Though Neptune and Pluto cross each others orbit, they are never close enough to each other that Neptune’s influence would force Pluto out of our Solar System. Using this same reasoning, they hypothesized that the KBOs examined by Batygin and Brown might be in an orbital resonance with the Planet 9.

As Dr.  Malhotra, Volk and Wang told Universe Today via email:

“The extreme Kuiper belt objects we investigate in our paper are distinct from the others because they all have very distant, very elliptical orbits, but their closest approach to the Sun isn’t really close enough for them to meaningfully interact with Neptune. So we have these six observed objects whose orbits are currently fairly unaffected by the known planets in our Solar System. But if there’s another, as yet unobserved planet located a few hundred AU from the Sun, these six objects would be affected by that planet.”

After examining the orbital periods of these six KBOs – Sedna, 2010 GB174, 2004 VN112, 2012 VP113, and 2013 GP136 – they concluded that a hypothetical planet with an orbital period of about 17,117 years (or a semimajor axis of about 665 AU), would have the necessary period ratios with these four objects. This would fall within the parameters estimated by Batygin and Brown for the planet’s orbital period (10,000 – 20,000 years).

Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign
Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign

Their analysis also offered suggestions as to what kind of resonance the planet has with the KBOs in question. Whereas Sedna’s orbital period would have a 3:2 resonance with the planet, 2010 GB174 would be in a 5:2 resonance, 2994 VN112 in a 3:1, 2004 VP113 in 4:1, and 2013 GP136 in 9:1. These sort of resonances are simply not likely without the presence of a larger planet.

“For a resonance to be dynamically meaningful in the outer Solar System, you need one of the objects to have enough mass to have a reasonably strong gravitational effect on the other,” said the research team. “The extreme Kuiper belt objects aren’t really massive enough to be in resonances with each other, but the fact that their orbital periods fall along simple ratios might mean that they each are in resonance with a massive, unseen object.”

But what is perhaps most exciting is that their findings could help to narrow the range of Planet 9’s possible location. Since each orbital resonance provides a geometric relationship between the bodies involved, the resonant configurations of these KBOs can help point astronomers to the right spot in our Solar System to find it.

But of course, Malhotra and her colleagues freely admit that several unknowns remain, and further observation and study is necessary before Planet 9 can be confirmed:

“There are a lot of uncertainties here. The orbits of these extreme Kuiper belt objects are not very well known because they move very slowly on the sky and we’ve only observed very small portions of their orbital motion. So their orbital periods might differ from the current estimates, which could make some of them not resonant with the hypothetical planet. It could also just be chance that the orbital periods of the objects are related; we haven’t observed very many of these types of objects, so we have a limited set of data to work with.”

Based on a careful study of Saturn's orbit and using mathematical models, French scientists were able to whittle down the search region for Planet Nine to "possible" and "probable" zones. Source: CNRS, Cote d'Azur and Paris observatories. Credit:
Estimates of Planet Nine’s “possible” and “probable” zones. by French scientists based on a careful study of Saturn’s orbit and using mathematical models. Source: CNRS, Cote d’Azur and Paris observatories. Credit: Bob King

Ultimately, astronomers and the rest of us will simply have to wait on further observations and calculations. But in the meantime, I think we can all agree that the possibility of a 9th Planet is certainly an intriguing one! For those who grew up thinking that the Solar System had nine planets, these past few years (where Pluto was demoted and that number fell to eight) have been hard to swallow.

But with the possible confirmation of this Super-Earth at the outer edge of the Solar System, that number could be pushed back up to nine soon enough!

Further Reading: arXiv.org

Who was Gerard Kuiper?

In the outer reaches of the Solar System, beyond the orbit of Neptune, lies a region permeated by celestial objects and minor planets. This region is known as the “Kuiper Belt“, and is named in honor of the 20th century astronomer who speculated about the existence of such a disc decades before it was observed. This disc, he reasoned, was the source of the Solar Systems many comets, and the reason there were no large planets beyond Neptune.

Gerard Kuiper is also regarded by many as being the “father of planetary science”. During the 1960s and 70s, he played a crucial role in the development of infrared airborne astronomy, a technology which led to many pivotal discoveries that would have been impossible using ground-based observatories. At the same time, he helped catalog asteroids, surveyed the Moon, Mars and the outer Solar System, and discovered new moons.

Continue reading “Who was Gerard Kuiper?”