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

What are the Chances that the Next Generation LSST Could Find New Planets in the Solar System?

In the past few decades, thanks to improvements in ground-based and space-based observatories, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting neighboring and distant stars (aka. extrasolar planets). Strangely enough, it is these same improvements, and during the same time period, that enabled the discovery of more astronomical bodies within the Solar System.

These include the “minor planets” of Eris, Sedna, Haumea, Makemake, and others, but also the hypothesized planetary-mass objects collectively known as Planet 9 (or Planet X). In a new study led by Northern Arizona University and the Lowell Observatory, a team of researchers hypothesize that the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) – a next-generation telescope that will go online in 2022 – has a good chance of finding this mysterious planet.

Their study, titled “On the detectability of Planet X with LSST“, recently appeared online. The study was led by David E. Trilling, an astrophysicist from the Northern Arizona University and the Lowell Observatory, and included Eric C. Bellm from the University of Washington and Renu Malhotra of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at The University of Arizona.

Artist’s impression of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Credit: lsst.org

Located on the Cerro Pachón ridge in north-central Chile, the 8.4-meter LSST will conduct a 10-year survey of the sky that will deliver 200 petabytes worth of images and data that will address some of the most pressing questions about the structure and evolution of the Universe and the objects in it. In addition to surveying the early Universe in order to understand the nature of dark matter and dark energy, it will also conduct surveys of the remote areas of the Solar System.

Planet 9/X is one such object. In recent years, the existence of two planetary-mass bodies have been hypothesized to explain the orbital distribution of distant Kuiper Belt Objects. While neither planet is thought to be exceptionally faint, the sky locations of these planets are poorly constrained – making them difficult to pinpoint. As such, a wide area survey is needed to detect these possible planets.

In 2022, the LSST will carry out an unbiased, large and deep survey of the southern sky, which makes it an important tool when it comes to the search of these hypothesized planets. As they state in their study:

“The possibility of undiscovered planets in the solar system has long fascinated astronomers and the public alike. Recent studies of the orbital properties of very distant Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) have identified several anomalies that may be due to the gravitational influence of one or more undiscovered planetary mass objects orbiting the Sun at distances comparable to the distant KBOs.

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” (aka. “Planet X”). Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign

These studies include Trujillo & Sheppard’s 2014 study where they noticed similarities in the orbits of distant Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) and postulated that a massive object was likely influencing them. This was followed by a 2016 study by Sheppard & Trujillo where they suggested that the high perihelion objects Sedna and 2012 VP113 were being influence by an unknown massive planet.

This was followed in 2016 by Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown of Caltech suggesting that an undiscovered planet was the culprit. Finally, Malhotra et al. (2016) noted that the most distant KBOs have near-integer period ratios, which was suggestive of a dynamical resonance with a massive object in the outer Solar System. Between these studies, various mass and distance estimates were formed that became the basis of the search for this planet.

Overall, these estimates indicated that Planet 9/X was a super-Earth with anywhere between 5 to 20 Earth masses, and orbited the Sun at a distance of between 150 – 600 AU. Concurrently, these studies have also attempted to narrow down where this Super-Earth’s orbit will take it throughout the outer Solar System, as evidenced by the perturbations it has on KBOs.

Unfortunately, the predicted locations and brightness of the object are not yet sufficiently constrained for astronomers to simply look in the right place at the right time and pick it out. In this respect, a large area sky survey must be carried out using moderately large telescopes with a very wide field of view. As Dr. Trilling told Universe Today via email:

“The predicted Planet X candidates are not particularly faint, but the possible locations on the sky are not very well constrained at all. Therefore, what you really need to find Planet X is a medium-depth telescope that covers a huge amount of sky. This is exactly LSST. LSST’s sensitivity will be sufficient to find Planet X in almost all its (their) predicted configurations, and LSST will cover around half of the known sky to this depth. Furthermore, the cadence is well-matched to finding moving objects, and the data processing systems are very advanced. If you were going to design a tool to find Planet X, LSST is what you would design.”
The orbits of several KBOs provide indications about the possible existence of Planet 9. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

However, the team also acknowledges that within certain parameters, Planet 9/X may not be detectable by the LSST. For example, it is possible that that there is a very narrow slice of predicted Planet 9/X parameters where it might be slightly too faint to be easily detected in LSST data. In addition, there is also a small possibility that irregularities in the Planet 9/X cadence might lead to it being missed.

There is the even the unlikely ways in which Planet 9/X could go undetected in LSST data, which would come down to a simple case of bad luck. However, as Dr. Trilling indicated, the team is prepared for these possibilities and is hopeful they will find Planet 9/X, assuming there’s anything to find:
“The more likely conclusion if planet X is not detected in LSST data is that planet X doesn’t exist – or at least not the kind of planet X that has been predicted. In this case, we’ve got to work harder to understand how the Universe created this pattern of orbits in the outer Solar System that I described above. This is a really fun part of science: make a prediction and test it, and find that the result is rarely what is predicted. So now we’ve got to work harder to understand the universe. Hopefully this new understanding makes new predictions that we then can test, and we repeat the cycle.”
The existence of Planet 9/X has been one of the more burning questions for astronomers in recent years. If its existence can be confirmed, astronomers may finally have a complete picture of the Solar System and its dynamics. If it’s existence can be ruled out, this will raise a whole new series of questions about what is going on in the Outer Solar System!

Further Reading: arXiv

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

What Caused the Kuiper Belt to Get Warped?

Astronomers have known about the Kuiper Belt for decades, and were postulating about its existence long before it was even observed. Since that time, many discoveries have been made in this region of space – ranging from numerous minor planets to the fact that the orbital planes of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) are widely dispersed – that have led to new theoretical models of the formation and evolution of the Solar System.

For instance, while conducting measurements of the mean plane of minor planets and KBOs, a team from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) at The University of Arizona discovered a warp in orbits of certain, highly-distant KBOs.  According to their study, this warp could be an indication of a planetary-mass object in the area, one which orbits our Sun even closer than the theoretical “Planet 9“.

The study – “The Curiously Warped Mean Plane of the Kuiper Belt” which is scheduled to be published in the Astronomical Journal – was produced by Kathryn Volk and Renu Malhotra (two astronomers with the LPL). As they stated in their study, the presence of this planet was confirmed by examining the orbits of icy bodies in the very outer reaches of the Solar System.

Artist’s impression of the yet-to-be-discovered “planetary mass object”, who’s existence has been theorized based on the orbital plane of distant Kuiper Belt objects. Credit: Heather Roper/LPL

Whereas most KBOs – which are leftover material from the formation of the Solar System – orbit the Sun close to the mean plane of the Solar System itself, the most distant objects do not. To determine why, the researchers analyzed the tilt angles of the orbital planes of more than 600 KBOs to determine the direction of their precession – i.e. the direction in which these rotating objects experience a change in their orientation.

As Malhotra – a Louise Foucar Marshall Science Research Professor and Regents’ Professor of Planetary Sciences at LPL – illustrated, KBOs operate in a way that is analogous to spinning tops:

“Imagine you have lots and lots of fast-spinning tops, and you give each one a slight nudge. If you then take a snapshot of them, you will find that their spin axes will be at different orientations, but on average, they will be pointing to the local gravitational field of Earth… We expect each of the KBOs’ orbital tilt angle to be at a different orientation, but on average, they will be pointing perpendicular to the plane determined by the Sun and the big planets.”

What they found was that the average plane of these objects was tilted away from the solar plane by about eight degrees, which suggests that a powerful gravitational force in the outer Solar System is tugging on them. “The most likely explanation for our results is that there is some unseen mass,” said Volk in UA News press release. “According to our calculations, something as massive as Mars would be needed to cause the warp that we measured.”

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

According to their calculations, this Mars-size body would likely orbit the Sun at a distance of roughly 60 AU, and with an orbital inclination that was tilted eight degrees to the average plane of the known planets (i.e. the same tilt as the “warped” KBOs). Within these parameters, a planet of this size would have sufficient gravitational influence to warp the orbital plane of the distant KBOs to within 10 AU on either side of it.

In other words, a Mars-sized planet in the outer Kuiper Belt would be able to influence the orbital inclination of KBOs that are between 50 and 70 AUs from the Sun. This is certainly consistent with what we know about the Kuiper Belt, who’s orbital inclination appears to be consistently flat (i.e. consistent with the rest of the Solar System) past a distance of about 50 AU – but changes between a distance of 50 and 80 AU.

As Volk indicated, there is a possibility that this warping could be the result of a statistical fluke. But in the end, their calculations indicated that this is highly unlikely, and that the behavior of distant KBOs is consistent with the existence of a as-yet-unseen gravitational influence:

“But going further out from 50 to 80 AU, we found that the average plane actually warps away from the invariable plane. There is a range of uncertainties for the measured warp, but there is not more than 1 or 2 percent chance that this warp is merely a statistical fluke of the limited observational sample of KBOs… The observed distant KBOs are concentrated in a ring about 30 AU wide and would feel the gravity of such a planetary mass object over time, so hypothesizing one planetary mass to cause the observed warp is not unreasonable across that distance.”  

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
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

Another possibility is that another object entirely could have disturbed the plane of the outer Kuiper Belt – for instance, a star passing through the outer Solar System. But as Malhotra explained, this explanation is also a highly unlikely, as any disturbance caused by a passing star would only be temporary and would have manifested itself differently.

“A passing star would draw all the ‘spinning tops’ in one direction,” he said. “Once the star is gone, all the KBOs will go back to precessing around their previous plane. That would have required an extremely close passage at about 100 AU, and the warp would be erased within 10 million years, so we don’t consider this a likely scenario.”

Moreover, the tilt of these objects could not be attributed to the existence of Planet 9, who’s existence has also been suggested based on the extreme eccentricity of certain populations of KBOs. Compared to this Mars-sized planet that is thought to orbit at 60 AUs from the Sun, Planet 9 is predicted to be much more massive (at around 10 Earth masses) and is believed to orbit at a distance of 500 to 700 AU.

Naturally, one has to ask why this planetary-mass body has not been found yet. According to Volk and Malhotra, the reason has to do with the fact that astronomers have not yet searched the entire sky for distant for Solar System objects. Beyond that, there’s also the likely position of the object (within the galactic plane), which is so densely packed with stars that surveys would have a hard time spotting it.

However, with the construction of instruments like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile nearly complete, opportunities to spot it may be coming sooner other than later. This wide-field survey reflecting telescope, which is run by a consortium that includes the University of Arizona, is expected to provide some of the deepest and widest views of the Universe to date (which will begin in 2020).

In the meantime, and in response to any possible controversies regarding the so-called “Planet Debate”, it is worth noting that this body (if it exists) is currently being referred to as “planetary-mass object”. This is because, by definition, a body needs to have cleared its orbit in order to be called a planet. What’s more, the study does not rule out the possibility that the warp could be the result of more than one planetary mass object in the area.

Therefore, it would premature to state that astronomers – having not yet even confirmed the existence of Planet 9 – are now talking about the existence of a possible “Planet 10”. In the coming years, more news and information will become available, which will hopefully help us put the debate to rest and agree on just how many planets there are out there!

Further Reading: UA News, Earth and Planetary Astrophysics

Here’s the Highest Resolution Map of Pluto We’ll Get from New Horizons

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by conducting the first flyby of Pluto. This represented the culmination of a nine year journey, which began on January 19th, 2006 – when the spacecraft was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. And before the mission is complete, NASA hopes to send the spacecraft to investigate objects in the Kuiper Belt as well.

To mark the 11th anniversary of the spacecraft’s launch, members of the New Horizons team took part in panel a discussion hosted by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) located in Laurel, Maryland. The event was broadcasted on Facebook Live, and consisted of team members speaking about the highlights of the mission and what lies ahead for the NASA spacecraft.

The live panel discussion took place on Thursday, Sept. 19th at 4 p.m. EST, and included Jim Green and Alan Stern – the director the Planetary Science Division at NASA and the principle investigator (PI) of the New Horizons mission, respectively. Also in attendance was Glen Fountain and Helene Winters, New Horizons‘ project managers; and Kelsi Singer, the New Horizons co-investigator.

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt object, part of an extended mission after the spacecraft’s July 2015 Pluto flyby. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

In the course of the event, the panel members responded to questions and shared stories about the mission’s greatest accomplishments. Among them were the many, many high-resolution photographs taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph and Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) cameras. In addition to providing detailing images of Pluto’s surface features, they also allowed for the creation of the very first detailed map of Pluto.

Though Pluto is not officially designated as a planet anymore – ever since the XXVIth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, where Pluto was designated as a “dwarf planet” – many members of the team still consider it to be the ninth planet of the Solar System. Because of this, New Horizons‘ historic flyby was of particular significance.

As Principle Investigator Alan Stern – from the Southwestern Research Institute (SwRI) – explained in an interview with Inverse, the first phase of humanity’s investigation of the Solar System is now complete. “What we did was we provided the capstone to the initial exploration of the planets,” he said. “All nine have been explored with New Horizons finishing that task.”

Other significant discoveries made by the New Horizons mission include Pluto’s famous heart-shaped terrain – aka.  Sputnik Planum. This region turned out to be a young, icy plain that contains water ice flows adrift on a “sea” of frozen nitrogen. And then there was the discovery of the large mountain and possible cryovolcano located at the tip of the plain – named Tombaugh Regio, (in honor of Pluto’s discovered, Clyde Tombaugh).

New Horizons path from the inner Solar System to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

The mission also revealed further evidence of geological activity and cryovolcanism, the presence of hyrdocarbon clouds on Pluto, and conducted the very first measurements of how Pluto interacts with solar wind. All told, over 50 gigabits of data were collected by New Horizons during its encounter and flyby with Pluto. And the detailed map which resulted from it did a good job of capturing all this complexity and diversity. As Stern explained:

“That really blew away our expectations. We did not think that a planet the size of North America could be as complex as Mars or even Earth. It’s just tons of eye candy. This color map is the highest resolution we will see until another spacecraft goes back to Pluto.”

After making its historic flyby of Pluto, the New Horizons team requested that the mission receive an extension to 2021 so that it could explore Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). This extension was granted, and for the first part of the Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM), the spacecraft will perform a close flyby of the object known as 2014 MU69.

This remote KBO – which is estimated to be between 25 – 45 km (16-28 mi) in diameter – was one of two objects identified as potential targets for research, and the one recommended by the New Horizons team. The flyby, which is expected to take place in January of 2019, will involve the spacecraft taking a series of photographs on approach, as well as some pictures of the object’s surface once it gets closer.

Before the extension ends in 2021, it will continue to send back information on the gas, dust and plasma conditions in the Kuiper Belt. Clearly, we are not finished with the New Horizons mission, and it is not finished with us!

To check out footage from the live-streamed event, head on over to the New Horizons Facebook page.

Further Reading: NASA

Evidence Continues To Mount For Ninth Planet

Ever since its existence was first proposed, the evidence for Planet 9 continues to mount. But of course, said evidence has been entirely indirect, consisting mostly of studies that show how the orbits of Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) are consistent with a large object crossing their path. However, evidence is also emerging that comes from the center of the Solar System itself.

This latest line of evidence comes from Caltech, where researchers Elizabeth Bailey, Konstantin Batygin, and Michael E. Brown (the latter of whom were the ones who first proposed Planet 9’s existence) have published a new study linking solar obliquity to the existence of Planet 9. Essentially, they claim that the axial tilt of the Sun (6°) could be due to the gravitational influence a large planet with an extreme orbit.

To recap, the issue of Planet was first raised in 2014 by astronomers Scott Sheppard and Chadwick Trujillo. 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.

The orbits of several KBOs provide indications about the possible existence of Planet 9. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
The orbits of several KBOs provide indications about the possible existence of Planet 9. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Calling this body Planet 9, they speculated that it had a mass 10 times greater than that of Earth, and took 20,000 years to complete a single orbit of our Sun. They also speculated that its orbit was tilted relative to the other planets of our Solar System, and extremely eccentric. And little by little, examinations of other Solar bodies have shown that Planet 9 is likely out there.

For the sake of their study – “Solar Obliquity Induced by Planet Nine“, which was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal – the research team (led by Bailey) looked to the obliquity of the Sun. As they state in their paper, the six-degree axial tilt of the Sun can only be explained in one of two ways – either as a result of an asymmetry that was present during the formation of Solar System, or because of an external source of gravity.

To test this hypothesis, Bailey, Batygin and Brown used an analytic model to test how interactions between Planet 9 and the rest of the Solar System would effect their orbits over the course of the last 4.5 billion years. As Elizabeth Bailey, a graduate student at Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and the lead author on the paper, told Universe Today via email:

“We simulated the solar system’s motion. Planet 9 forces the solar system to slowly wobble. If Planet 9 is out there, we are in the process of wobbling right now, as we speak! But it happens very slowly, a few degrees tilt per billion years. Meanwhile the sun is not wobbling much,  so it looks like the sun is tilted. A range of Planet 9 parameters cause exactly the configuration of the sun that we see today.

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

In the end, they concluded that the Sun’s obliquity could only be explained by the influence of giant planet with an extreme orbit, one that is consistent with the characteristics attributed to Planet 9. In other words, the existence of Planet 9 offers an explanation for the Sun’s peculiar behavior, something which has remained a mystery until now.

“Planet Nine was first hypothesized because the orbits of objects in the outer reaches of the solar system are confined in physical space,” said Bailey. “Those orbits would be all over the place unless something is currently stopping them. The only explanation so far is Planet Nine. For over 150 years, people have wondered why the sun is tilted. Personally I’d say that Planet 9 offers the first satisfying explanation. If it exists, it tilted the sun.”

In addition, the subject of Planet 9 was also raised at the joint 48th meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences and 11th European Planetary Science Congress, which took place from Oct 16th to 21st in Pasadena, California. During the course of the meeting, researchers from Arizona University shared the results of their own study, which was published back in August.

The Arizona research team was led by Renu Malhotra, a Regents’ Professor of Planetary Sciences in the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab. For the sake of their study, titled “Corralling a Distant Planet with Extreme Resonant Kuiper Belt Objects“, they examined the orbital patterns of four extreme Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), which have the longest orbital periods of any known objects.

Artist's impression of the the possible Planet 9 at the edge of the Solar System. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Science
Artist’s impression of the the possible Planet 9 at the edge of the Solar System. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Science

According to their calculations, the presence of a massive planet – one that would complete an orbit around the Sun every 17,117 years, and at an average distance (semimajor axis) of 665 AU – would explain the orbital pattern of these four objects. These results were consistent with the estimates concerning the orbital period of Planet 9, its orbital path, and it mass.

“We analyzed the data of these most distant Kuiper Belt objects,” Malhotra said, “and noticed something peculiar, suggesting they were in some kind of resonances with an unseen planet… Our paper provides more specific estimates for the mass and orbit that this planet would have, and, more importantly, constraints on its current position within its orbit.”

Looks like Planet 9’s days of hiding in the outer Solar System may be numbered!

Further Reading: arXiv, Caltech, Europlanet

Weekly Space Hangout – May 20, 2016: Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guests:
Mike Brown is the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at CalTech. Konstantin Batygin is Assistant Professor of Planetary Science at CalTech. They’ll be here discussing their discovery of Planet 9 and what’s been happening since that amazing announcement.

Guests:
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)

We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today or the Universe Today YouTube page.

You can also join in the discussion between episodes over at our Weekly Space Hangout Crew group in G+!

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

The (Possible) Dwarf Planet 2007 OR10

Over the course of the past decade, more and more objects have been discovered within the Trans-Neptunian region. With every new find, we have learned more about the history of our Solar System and the mysteries it holds. At the same time, these finds have forced astronomers to reexamine astronomical conventions that have been in place for decades.

Consider 2007 OR10, a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) located within the scattered disc that at one time went by the nicknames of “the seventh dwarf” and “Snow White”. Approximately the same size as Haumea, it is believed to be a dwarf planet, and is currently the largest object in the Solar System that does not have a name.

Discovery and Naming:

2007 OR10 was discovered in 2007 by Meg Schwamb, a PhD candidate at Caltech and a graduate student of Michael Brown, while working out of the Palomar Observatory. The object was colloquially referred to as the “seventh dwarf” (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) since it was the seventh object to be discovered by Brown’s team (after Quaoar in 2002, Sedna in 2003, Haumea and Orcus in 2004, and Makemake and Eris in 2005).

Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon
Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon

At the time of its discovery, the object appeared to be very large and very white, which led to Brown giving it the other nickname of “Snow White”. However, subsequent observation has revealed that the planet is actually one of the reddest in the Kuiper Belt, comparable only to Haumea. As a result, the nickname was dropped and the object is still designated as 2007 OR10.

The discovery of 2007 OR10 would not be formally announced until January 7th, 2009.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

A study published in 2011 by Brown – in collaboration with A.J. Burgasser (University of California San Diego) and W.C. Fraser (MIT) – 2007 OR10’s diameter was estimated to be between 1000-1500 km. These estimates were based on photometry data obtained in 2010 using the Magellan Baade Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and from spectral data obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope.

However, a survey conducted in 2012 by Pablo Santos Sanz et al. of the Trans-Neptunian region produced an estimate of 1280±210 km based on the object’s size, albedo, and thermal properties. Combined with its absolute magnitude and albedo, 2007 OR10 is the largest unnamed object and the fifth brightest TNO in the Solar System. No estimates of its mass have been made as of yet.

2007 OR10 also has a highly eccentric orbit (0.5058) with an inclination of 30.9376°. What this means is that at perihelion, it is roughly 33 AU (4.9 x 109 km/30.67 x 109 mi) from our Sun while at aphelion, it is as distant as 100.66 AU (1.5 x 1010 km/9.36 x 1010 mi). It also has an orbital period of 546.6 years, which means that the last time it was at perihelion was 1857 and it won’t reach aphelion until 2130. As such, it is currently the second-farthest known large body in the Solar System, and  will be farther out than both Sedna and Eris by 2045.

Composition:

According to the spectral data obtained by Brown, Burgasser and Fraser, 2007 OR10 shows infrared signatures for both water ice and methane, which indicates that it is likely similar in composition to Quaoar. Concurrent with this, the reddish appearance of 2007 OR10 is believed to be due to presence of tholins in the surface ice, which are caused by the irradiation of methane by ultraviolet radiation.

The presence of red methane frost on the surfaces of both 2007 OR10 and Quaoar is also seen as an indication of the possible existence of a tenuous methane atmosphere, which would slowly evaporate into space when the objects are closer to the Sun. Although 2007 OR10 comes closer to the Sun than Quaoar, and is thus warm enough that a methane atmosphere should evaporate, its larger mass makes retention of an atmosphere just possible.

Also, the presence of water ice on the surface is believed to imply that the object underwent a brief period of cryovolcanism in its distant past. According to Brown, this period would have been responsible not only for water ice freezing on the surface, but for the creation of an atmosphere that included nitrogen and carbon monoxide. These would have been depleted rather quickly, and a tenuous atmosphere of methane would be all that remains today.

However, more data is required before astronomers can say for sure whether or not 2007 OR10 has an atmosphere, a history of cryovolcanism, and what its interior looks like. Like other KBOs, it is possible that it is differentiated between a mantle of ices and a rocky core. Assuming that there is sufficient antifreeze, or due to the decay of radioactive elements, there may even be a liquid-water ocean at the core-mantle boundary.

Classification:

Though it is too difficult to resolve 2007 OR10’s size based on direct observation, based on calculations of 2007 OR10’s albedo and absolute magnitude, many astronomers believe it to be of sufficient size to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. As Brown stated in 2011, 2007 OR10 “must be a dwarf planet even if predominantly rocky”, which is based on a minimum possible diameter of 552 km and what is believed to be the conditions under which hydrostatic equilibrium occurs in cold icy-rock bodies.

That same year, Scott S. Sheppard and his team (which included Chad Trujillo) conducted a survey of bright KBOs (including 2007 OR10) using the Palomar Observatory’s 48 inch Schmidt telescope. According to their findings, they determined that “[a]ssuming moderate albedos, several of the new discoveries from this survey could be in hydrostatic equilibrium and thus could be considered dwarf planets.”

Currently, nothing is known of 2007 OR10’s mass, which is a major factor when determining if a body has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. This is due in part to there being no known satellite(s) in orbit of the object, which in turn is a major factor in determining the mass of a system. Meanwhile, the IAU has not addressed the possibility of accepting additional dwarf planets since before the discovery of 2007 OR10 was announced.

Alas, much remains to be learned about 2007 OR10. Much like it’s Trans-Neptunian neighbors and fellow KBOs, a lot will depend on future missions and observations being able to learn more about its size, mass, composition, and whether or not it has any satellites. However, given its extreme distance and fact that it is currently moving further and further away, opportunities to observe and explore it via flybys will be limited.

However, if all goes well, this potential dwarf planet could be joining the ranks of such bodies as Pluto, Eris, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake in the not-too-distant future. And with luck, it will be given a name that actually sticks!

We have many interesting articles on Dwarf Planets, the Kuiper Belt, and Plutoids here at Universe Today. Here’s Why Pluto is no longer a planet and how astronomers are predicting Two More Large Planets in the outer Solar System.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode all about Dwarf Planets titled, Episode 194: Dwarf Planets.

For more information, check out the NASA’s Solar System Overview: Dwarf Planets, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Small-Body Database, as well as Mike Browns Planets.

 

What Did We Learn About Pluto?

We’ve only had blurry images of Pluto up until New Horizons. So what did we learn when we got up close and personal with Pluto and its moons?

Clyde Tombaugh first discovered Pluto in 1930. He saw only see a single speck of light moving slowly in front of the background stars as he flipped photographic plates back and forth. Sadly, this was the best anyone could do for decades. Even the mighty Hubble, the most sensitive instrument ever focused on Pluto, could only resolve a few grainy pixels.

It’s because Pluto is really really far away: 7.5 billion kilometers. Just the light alone from there takes over 4 hours to reach us. In order to get any more information, humanity needed to reach out and send a spacecraft to Pluto, and photograph it, up close and personal.

In 1989, Alan Stern and a group of planetary scientists began working on a mission. Their work culminated in NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, beginning a 9 and a half year journey. And unless you’ve been living in a lunar lava tube, you know that New Horizons finally reached its destination in mid July 2015, passing a narrow 12,472 kilometers above the surface.

For the very first time in human history, we saw a member of the Kuiper Belt right up in it’s business. And now I retire these old low quality images Pluto! Begone artist’s illustrations!

From here on out, we’re all about sick high def photos of the surface and its moons. I for one am going to revel in them for a while.

So fashion shoots aside, what did we actually learn about Pluto? The primary mission was to map the geography of Pluto and its biggest moon, Charon. It would study the surface chemistry of these icy worlds, and measure their atmospheres, if they even exist at all.

The mission had a few other objectives, and of course, planetary scientists knew that the spacecraft would just surprise us with stuff we never expected. Kuiper Belt objects like Pluto and Charon are ancient; geologists expected them to be pockmarked with craters, large and small.

Views of Pluto during New Horizons' approach. Credit: NASA/Damian Peach
Views of Pluto during New Horizons’ approach. Credit: NASA/Damian Peach

Surprisingly, New Horizons showed relatively smooth surfaces on both worlds. Pluto has a Texas-sized region newly named Sputnik Planum, where exotic ices flow like glaciers. Frozen nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane ices act just like the ones we have here on Earth. We can see from the relative lack of craters that this process is still happening.

Pluto has mountains. Mountains! Close ups show a young range with peaks as high as 11,000 feet, or 3,500 meters. Here’s the crazy part. Those exotic chemicals that act like snow and ice? They’re not hard enough to make mountain peaks like this.

At extreme cold temperatures, water ice becomes as hard as rock. These mountains are made of ice, and they’re very young, probably less than 100 million years old. There could be plate tectonics on Pluto, but with ice, not rock. My mind is blown.

Pluto’s moon Charon has a huge chasm longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona and although scientists hoped to see an atmosphere, the reality was beyond anyone’s expectations.

Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, is displayed with north at the top of the frame.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, is displayed with north at the top of the frame. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New Horizons detected a thin nitrogen atmosphere at Pluto. It could be snowing nitrogen on Pluto right now. There could be faint winds, since there are regions on Pluto that look like they might have undergone weathering.

Take a look at this photograph as New Horizons zipped away. You can see the atmosphere clearly surrounding the dwarf planet, interacting with the solar wind and creating a tail that stretches away from the Sun.

Here’s my favorite thing we learned. Pluto is about 80 km larger than previous estimates, which makes it the largest Kuiper Belt Object found so far. Even bigger than Eris, which is still a little more massive. So maybe it’s time to revisit that Pluto planethood debate again. I’m just messing with you. No good will ever come from having that debate. It will only end in tears.

Interestingly, the data connection between Earth and New Horizons is tenuous. Possibly the worst internet since AOL. It can only transmit back about 1kb of data per second, which means that we’ll need to wait about 16 months for the photographs and data to be sent home during the first few days of the flyby.

As an extra bonus, this isn’t the last we’re going to hear from New Horizons. Because it’s so far away, as the spacecraft can only trickle data back to Earth. It’s going to take almost 2 years for all the images and measurements it gathered during its flyby to get back to Earth for scientists to study. Expect many more discoveries and announcements over the coming years, and more videos from us.

Now that Pluto has finally been explored, where do you think we should go next in the Solar System? Tell us in the comments below.