New Horizons Sees its Next Target for the First Time: Ultima Thule. Flyby Happens January 1, 2019

In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. Since that time, the spacecraft’s mission was extended so it could make its way farther into the outer Solar System and become the first spacecraft to explore some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). It’s first objective will be the KBO known as 2014 MU69, which was recently given the nickname “Ultima Thule” (“ultima thoo-lee”).

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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

Pluto is What You Get When a Billion Comets Smash Together

Pluto has been the focus of a lot of attention for more than a decade now. This began shortly after the discovery of Eris in the Kuiper Belt, one of many Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) that led to the “Great Planetary Debate” and the 2006 IAU Resolution. Interest in Pluto also increased considerably thanks to the New Horizons mission, which conducted the first flyby of this “dwarf planet” in July of 2015.

The data this mission provided on Pluto is still proving to be a treasure trove for astronomers, allowing for new discoveries about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere, and even formation. For instance, a new study produced by researchers from the Southwest Research Institute (and supported by NASA Rosetta funding) indicates that Pluto may have formed from a billion comets crashing together.

The study, titled “Primordial N2 provides a cosmochemical explanation for the existence of Sputnik Planitia, Pluto“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Icarus. The study was authored by Dr. Christopher R. Glein – a researcher with the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division – and Dr. J. Hunter Waite Jr, an SwRI program director.

The first Kuiper Belt is home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL

The origin of Pluto is something that astronomers have puzzled over for some time. An early hypothesis was that it was an escaped moon of Neptune that had been knocked out of orbit by Neptune’s current largest moon, Triton. However, this theory was disproven after dynamical studies showed that Pluto never approaches Neptune in its orbit. With the discovery of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, the true of origin of Pluto began to become clear.

Essentially, while Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, it is similar in orbit and composition to the icy objects that surround it. On occasion, some of these objects are kicked out of the Kuiper Belt and become long-period comets in the Inner Solar System. To determine if Pluto formed from billions of KBOs, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr. examined data from the New Horizons mission on the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia.

This large glacier forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface (aka. Pluto’s “Heart”). They then compared this to data obtained by the NASA/ESA Rosetta mission, which studied the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) between 2014 and 2016. As Dr. Glein explained:

“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation. We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

New Horizon’s July 2015 flyby of Pluto captured this iconic image of the heart-shaped region called Tombaugh Regio. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This research also comes up against a competing theory, known as the “solar model”. In this scenario, Pluto formed from the very cold ices that were part of the protoplanetary disk, and would therefore have a chemical composition that more closely matches that of the Sun. In order to determine which was more likely, scientists needed to understand not only how much nitrogen is present at Pluto now (in its atmosphere and glaciers), but how much could have leaked out into space over the course of eons.

They then needed to come up with an explanation for the current proportion of carbon monoxide to nitrogen. Ultimately, the low abundance of carbon monoxide at Pluto could only be explained by burial in surface ices or destruction from liquid water. In the end, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr.’s research suggests that Pluto’s initial chemical makeup, which was created by comets, was modified by liquid water, possibly in the form of a subsurface ocean.

“This research builds upon the fantastic successes of the New Horizons and Rosetta missions to expand our understanding of the origin and evolution of Pluto,” said Dr. Glein. “Using chemistry as a detective’s tool, we are able to trace certain features we see on Pluto today to formation processes from long ago. This leads to a new appreciation of the richness of Pluto’s ‘life story,’ which we are only starting to grasp.”

While the research certainly offers an interesting explanation for how Pluto formed, the solar model still satisfies some criteria. In the end, more research will be needed before scientists can conclude how Pluto formed. And if data from the New Horizons or Rosetta missions should prove insufficient, perhaps another to New Frontiers mission to Pluto will solve the mystery!

Further Reading: SwRI, Icarus

New Horizons Team Has a New Nickname for the Spacecraft’s Next Target

In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. Since that time, the spacecraft’s mission was extended so it could make its way farther into the outer Solar System and explore some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). Another historic first, the spacecraft will study these ancient objects in the hopes of learning more about the formation and evolution of the Solar System.

By Jan. 1st, 2019, it will have arrived at its first destination, the KBO known as 2014 MU69. And with the help of the public, this object recently received the nickname “Ultima Thule” (“ultima thoo-lee”). This object, which orbits our Sun at a distance of about 1.6 billion km (1 billion miles) beyond Pluto, will be the most primitive object ever observed by a spacecraft. It will also be the farthest encounter ever achieved in the history of space exploration.

Artist’s concept of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons missionCredits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

In 2015, MU69 was identified as one of two potential destinations for the New Horizons mission and was recommended to NASA by the mission science team. It was selected because of the immense opportunities for research it presented. As Alan Stern, the Principle Investigator (PI) for the New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), indicated at the time:

“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by. Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”

Originally, the KBO was thought to be a spherical chunk of ice and rock. However, in August of 2017, new occultation observations made by telescopes in Argentina led the team to conclude that MU69 could actually be a large object with a chunk taken out of it (an “extreme prolate spheroid”). Alternately, they suspected that it might be two objects orbiting very closely together or touching – aka. a close or contact binary.

Given the significance of New Horizons‘ impending encounter with this object, its only proper that it receive a an actual name. In medieval literature and cartography, Thule was a mythical, far-northern island. Ultima Thule means “beyond Thule”, which essentially means that which lies beyond the borders of the known world. This name is highly appropriate, since the exploration of a KBO is something that has never been done before.

This artist's impression shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)
This artist’s impression shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)

As Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute, said in a recent NASA press release:

“MU69 is humanity’s next Ultima Thule. Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission’s next achievement. Since this will be the farthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our flyby target Ultima, for short, symbolizing this ultimate exploration by NASA and our team.”

The campaign to name this object was launched by NASA and the New Horizons team in early November, and was hosted by the SETI Institute and led by Mark Showalter – an institute fellow and member of the New Horizons science team. The campaign involved 115,000 participants from around the world who nominated 34,000 names – 37 of which were selected for a final ballot based on their popularity.

These included eight names suggested by the New Horizons team and 29 nominated by the public. The team then narrowed its selection to the 29 publicly-nominated names and gave preference to names near the top of the polls. Along with Ultima Thule, other names that were considered included Abeona, Pharos, Pangu, Rubicon, Olympus, Pinnacle and Tiramisu.

This chart shows the path of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft toward its next potential target, the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, (aka. Ultima Thule). Credit: Alex Parker/NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

After a five-day extension was granted to accommodate more voting, the campaign wrapped up on Dec. 6th, 2017. Ultima Thule received about 40 nominations from the public and was among those that got the most votes. “We are grateful to those who proposed such an interesting and inspirational nickname,” Showalter said. “They deserve credit for capturing the true spirit of exploration that New Horizons embodies.”

This name, however, is not a permanent one, but a working one which reflects the fact that MU69 is beyond Pluto – once held to be the most distant planet of the Solar System. Once the flyby is complete, NASA and the New Horizons team will submit a formal name to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The name will depend on whether or not MU69 is a single body, a binary pair, or multiple objects.

You can check out the he final tallies on all the highest-voted names at http://frontierworlds.seti.org/.

Further Reading: NASA

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

Triton’s Arrival was Chaos for the Rest of Neptune’s Moons

The study of the Solar System’s many moons has revealed a wealth of information over the past few decades. These include the moons of Jupiter – 69 of which have been identified and named – Saturn (which has 62) and Uranus (27). In all three cases, the satellites that orbit these gas giants have prograde, low-inclination orbits. However, within the Neptunian system, astronomers noted that the situation was quite different.

Compared to the other gas giants, Neptune has far fewer satellites, and most of the system’s mass is concentrated within a single satellite that is believed to have been captured (i.e. Triton). According to a new study by a team from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, Neptune may have once had a more massive systems of satellites, which the arrival of Triton may have disrupted.

The study, titled “Triton’s Evolution with a Primordial Neptunian Satellite System“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. The research team consisted of Raluca Rufu, an astrophysicist and geophysicist from the Weizmann Institute, and Robin M. Canup – the Associate VP of the SwRI. Together, they considered models of a primordial Neptunian system, and how it may have changed thanks to the arrival of Triton.

Neptune and its large moon Triton as seen by Voyager 2 on August 28th, 1989. Credit: NASA

For many years, astronomers have been of the opinion that Triton was once a dwarf planet that was kicked out of the Kuiper Belt and captured by Neptune’s gravity. This is based on its retrograde and highly-inclined orbit (156.885° to Neptune’s equator), which contradicts current models of how gas giants and their satellites form. These models suggest that as giant planets accrete gas, their moons form from a surrounding debris disk.

Consistent with the other gas giants, the largest of these satellites would have prograde, regular orbits that are not particularly inclined relative to their planet’s equator (typically less than 1°). In this respect, Triton is believed to have once been part of a binary made up of two Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs). When they swung past Neptune, Triton would have been captured by its gravity and gradually fell into its current orbit.

As Dr. Rufu and Dr. Canup state in their study, the arrival of this massive satellite would have likely caused a lot of disruption in the Neptunian system and affected its evolution. This consisted of them exploring how interactions – like scattering or collisions – between Triton and Neptune’s prior satellites would have modified Triton’s orbit and mass, as well as the system at large. As they explain:

“We evaluate whether the collisions among the primordial satellites are disruptive enough to create a debris disk that would accelerate Triton’s circularization, or whether Triton would experience a disrupting impact first. We seek to find the mass of the primordial satellite system that would yield the current architecture of the Neptunian system.”
Montage of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton and the planet Neptune showing the moon’s sublimating south polar cap (bottom) and enigmatic “cantaloupe terrain”. Credit: NASA

To test how the Neptunian system could have evolved, they considered different types of primordial satellite systems. This included one that was consistent with Uranus’ current system, made up of prograde satellites with a similar mass ration as Uranus’ largest moons – Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon – as well as one that was either more or less massive. They then conducted simulations to determine how Triton’s arrival would have altered these systems.

These simulations were based on disruption scaling laws which considered how non-hit-and-run impacts between Triton and other bodies would have led to a redistribution of matter in the system. What they found, after 200 simulations, was that a system that had a mass ratio that was similar to the current Uranian system (or smaller) would have been most likely to produce the current Neptunian system. As they state:

“We find that a prior satellite system with a mass ratio similar to the Uranian system or smaller has a substantial likelihood of reproducing the current Neptunian system, while a more massive system has a low probability of leading to the current configuration.”

They also found that the interaction of Triton with an earlier satellite system also offers a potential explanation for how its initial orbit could have been decreased fast enough to preserve the orbits of small irregular satellites. These Nereid-like bodies would have otherwise been kicked out of their orbits as tidal forces between Neptune and Triton caused Triton to assume its current orbit.

The moons of Uranus and Neptune as imaged during the 2011 opposition season. Credit: Rolf Wahl Olsen.

Ultimately, this study not only offers a possible explanation as to why Neptune’s system of satellites differs from those of other gas giants; it also indicates that Neptune’s proximity to the Kuiper Belt is what is responsible. At one time, Neptune may have had a system of moons that were very much like those of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. But since it is well-situated to pick up dwarf planet-sized objects that were kicked out of the Kuiper Belt, this changed.

Looking to the future, Rufu and Canup indicate that additional studies are needed in order to shed light on Triton’s early evolution as a Neptunian satellite. Essentially, there are still unanswered questions concerning the effects the system of pre-existing satellites had on Triton, and how stable its irregular prograde satellites were.

These findings were also presented by Dr, Rufu and Dr. Canup during the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which took place in The Woodlands, Texas, this past March.

Further Reading: The Astronomical Journal, USRA

Debris Disks Around Stars Could Point the Way to Giant Exoplanets

According to current estimates, there could be as many as 100 billion planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. Unfortunately, finding evidence of these planets is tough, time-consuming work. For the most part, astronomers are forced to rely on indirect methods that measure dips in a star’s brightness (the Transit Method) of Doppler measurements of the star’s own motion (the Radial Velocity Method).

Direct imaging is very difficult because of the cancelling effect stars have, where their brightness makes it difficult to spot planets orbiting them. Luckily a new study led by the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at Caltech has determined that there may be a shortcut to finding exoplanets using direct imaging. The solution, they claim, is to look for systems with a circumstellar debris disk, for they are sure to have at least one giant planet.

The study, titled “A Direct Imaging Survey of Spitzer Detected Debris Disks: Occurrence of Giant Planets in Dusty Systems“, recently appeared in The Astronomical Journal. Tiffany Meshkat, an assistant research scientist at IPAC/Caltech, was the lead author on the study, which she performed while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher.

A circumstellar disk of debris around a mature stellar system could indicate the presence of Earth-like planets. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of circumstellar disk of debris around a distant star. Credit: NASA/JPL

For the sake of this study, Dr. Meshkat and her colleagues examined data on 130 different single-star systems with debris disks, which they then compared to 277 stars that do not appear to host disks. These stars were all observed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and were all relatively young in age (less than 1 billion years). Of these 130 systems, 100 had previously been studied for the sake of finding exoplanets.

Dr. Meshkat and her team then followed up on the remaining 30 systems using data from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. While they did not detect any new planets in these systems, their examinations helped characterize the abundance of planets in systems that had disks.

What they found was that young stars with debris disks are more likely to also have giant exoplanets with wide orbits than those that do not. These planets were also likely to have five times the mass of Jupiter, thus making them “Super-Jupiters”. As Dr. Meshkat explained in a recent NASA press release, this study will be of assistance when it comes time for exoplanet-hunters to select their targets:

“Our research is important for how future missions will plan which stars to observe. Many planets that have been found through direct imaging have been in systems that had debris disks, and now we know the dust could be indicators of undiscovered worlds.”

This artist’s conception shows how collisions between planetesimals can create additional debris. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This study, which was the largest examination of stars with dusty debris disks, also provided the best evidence to date that giant planets are responsible for keeping debris disks in check. While the research did not directly resolve why the presence of a giant planet would cause debris disks to form, the authors indicate that their results are consistent with predictions that debris disks are the products of giant planets stirring up and causing dust collisions.

In other words, they believe that the gravity of a giant planet would cause planestimals to collide, thus preventing them from forming additional planets. As study co-author Dimitri Mawet, who is also a JPL senior research scientist, explained:

“It’s possible we don’t find small planets in these systems because, early on, these massive bodies destroyed the building blocks of rocky planets, sending them smashing into each other at high speeds instead of gently combining.”

Within the Solar System, the giant planets create debris belts of sorts. For example, between Mars and Jupiter, you have the Main Asteroid Belt, while beyond Neptune lies the Kuiper Belt. Many of the systems examined in this study also have two belts, though they are significantly younger than the Solar System’s own belts – roughly 1 billion years old compared to 4.5 billion years old.

Artist’s impression of Beta Pictoris b. Credit: ESO L. Calçada/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

One of the systems examined in the study was Beta Pictoris, a system that has a debris disk, comets, and one confirmed exoplanet. This planet, designated Beta Pictoris b, which has 7 Jupiter masses and orbits the star at a distance of 9 AUs – i.e. nine times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This system has been directly imaged by astronomers in the past using ground-based telescopes.

Interestingly enough, astronomers predicted the existence of this exoplanet well before it was confirmed, based on the presence and structure of the system’s debris disk. Another system that was studied was HR8799, a system with a debris disk that has two prominent dust belts. In these sorts of systems, the presence of more giant planets is inferred based on the need for these dust belts to be maintained.

This is believed to be case for our own Solar System, where 4 billion years ago, the giant planets diverted passing comets towards the Sun. This resulted in the Late Heavy Bombardment, where the inner planets were subject to countless impacts that are still visible today. Scientists also believe that it was during this period that the migrations of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune deflected dust and small bodies to form the Kuiper Belt and Asteroid Belt.

Dr. Meshkat and her team also noted that the systems they examined contained much more dust than our Solar System, which could be attributable to their differences in age. In the case of systems that are around 1 billion years old, the increased presence of dust could be the result of small bodies that have not yet formed larger bodies colliding. From this, it can be inferred that our Solar System was once much dustier as well.

Artist’s concept of the multi-planet system around HR 8799, initially discovered with Gemini North adaptive optics images. Credit: Gemini Observatory/Lynette Cook”

However, the authors note is also possible that the systems they observed – which have one giant planet and a debris disk – may contain more planets that simply have not been discovered yet. In the end, they concede that more data is needed before these results can be considered conclusive. But in the meantime, this study could serve as an guide as to where exoplanets might be found.

As Karl Stapelfeldt, the chief scientist of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Office and a co-author on the study, stated:

“By showing astronomers where future missions such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have their best chance to find giant exoplanets, this research paves the way to future discoveries.”

In addition, this study could help inform our own understanding of how the Solar System evolved over the course of billions of years. For some time, astronomers have been debating whether or not planets like Jupiter migrated to their current positions, and how this affected the Solar System’s evolution. And there continues to be debate about how the Main Belt formed (i.e. empty of full).

Last, but not least, it could inform future surveys, letting astronomers know which star systems are developing along the same lines as our own did, billions of years ago. Wherever star systems have debris disks, they an infer the presence of a particularly massive gas giant. And where they have a disk with two prominent dust belts, they can infer that it too will become a system containing many planets and and two belts.

Further Reading: NASA, The Astrophysical Journal

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

New Study Indicates that Planet 9 Likely Formed in the Solar System

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

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”, this hypothetical body was believed to orbit at an extreme distance from our Sun. Since that time, multiple studies have been produced that have had tried to address the all-important question of where Planet 9 could have come from.

Whereas some studies have 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. A recent study by a team of astronomers has cast doubt on this latter possibility, however, and indicates that Planet 9 likely formed closer to the Sun and migrated outward during its history.

Their study, titled “Was Planet 9 Captured in the Sun’s Natal Star-Forming Region?“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team was led by Dr. Richard Parker from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, with colleagues from ETH Zurich. Together, they conducted simulations that cast doubt on the “capture” scenario.

The six most distant known objects in the solar system with orbits exclusively beyond Neptune (magenta) all mysteriously line up in a single direction. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC); [Diagram created using WorldWide Telescope.]
The existence of Planet 9 (or Planet X, for those who maintain that Pluto is still a planet) was first suggested in 2014 by astronomers Chad Trujillo and Scott S. Sheppard, based on the unusual behavior of certain populations of extreme Trans-Neptunian Objects (eTNOs). From a number of studies that took place over the next few years, constraints were gradually placed on the basic parameters of this planet.

Essentially, Planet 9 is believed to be at least ten times as massive as Earth and two to four times the size. It also believed to have a highly elliptical orbit around the Sun, at an average distance (semi-major axis) of approximately 700 AU and ranging from about 200 AU at perihelion to 1200 AU at aphelion. Last, but not least, scientists have estimated that Planet 9 takes between 10,000 and 20,000 years to complete a single orbit of the Sun.

Because of this, it appears unlikely that Planet 9 could have formed in its current location. Hence why astronomers have argued that it either formed closer to the Sun or was captured from another star system billions of years ago. As Dr. Parker explained in University of Sheffield press statement:

“We know that planetary systems form at the same time as stars, and when stars are very young they are usually found in groups where interactions between stellar siblings are common. Therefore, the environment where stars form directly affects planetary systems like our own, and is usually so densely populated that stars can capture other stars or planets.”

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

For the sake of their study, the team conducted simulations of the Solar System when it was still in its “nursery” phase – i.e. in the early process of formation. While interactions with other star systems (and their planets) are known to be common in this period, the team found that even where conditions were optimized for the sake of capturing free-floating planets, the odds of Planet 9 being captured were quite low.

Overall, their simulations indicated that with an orbit like that of Planet 9, only 5 to 10 planets out of 10,000 would be captured when the Solar System was still young. In short, the likelihood that Planet 9 could have been booted out of another star system and captured by our Sun was a paltry 1 out of a 1,000 to 2,000. Not exactly betting odds! As Dr. Parker summarized:

“In this work, we have shown that – although capture is common – ensnaring planets onto the postulated orbit of Planet 9 is very improbable. We’re not ruling out the idea of Planet 9, but instead we’re saying that it must have formed around the sun, rather than captured from another planetary system.”

If Planet 9 was not captured, then there remains only one possibility: ut formed closer to our Sun and gradually migrated beyond the orbit of Neptune, reaching distances occupied only by the most extreme Kuiper Belt Objects. And while the hunt of this elusive and mysterious planet is ongoing, any research which places additional constraints on its characteristics and origin are extremely useful.

By ruling out different scenarios in which the planet formed, researchers are also raising new questions about the history and evolution of our Solar System. From when did all the planets we know come from? Did they form in their current orbits, or did migration play a role? These and other questions are sure to be raised and addressed as we close in on Planet 9.

Further Reading: University of Sheffield, MNRAS

Evidence Mounts for the Existence of Planet Nine

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

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”, this hypothetical body was estimated to be about 10 times as massive as Earth and to orbit that our Sun at an average distance of 700 AU. Since that time, multiple studies have been produced that either support or cast doubt on the existence of Planet 9.

While some argue that the orbits of certain Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) are proof of Planet 9, others argue that these studies suffer from an observational bias. The latest study, which comes from a pair of astronomers from the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), offers a fresh perspective that could settle the debate. Using a new technique that focuses on extreme TNOs (ETNOs), they believe the case for Planet 9 can be made.

Extreme Trans-Neptunian Objects are those that orbit our Sun at average distances greater than 150 AU, and therefore never cross Neptune’s orbit. As the UMC team indicate in their study, which was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the distances between the ETNOs nodes and the Sun may point the way towards Planet 9.

Artist’s impression of what the theoretical Planet 9 could look like. Credit: NASA

These nodes are the two points at which the orbit of a celestial body crosses the plane of the Solar System. It is at these points that the chances of interacting with other bodies in the Solar System is the greatest, and hence where ETNOs are most likely to experience a drastic change in their orbits (or a collision). By measuring where these nodes are, the team believed they could tell if the ETNOs are being perturbed by another object in the area.

As Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, one of the authors on the study, explained in an interview with The Information and Scientific News Service (SINC):

“If there is nothing to perturb them, the nodes of these extreme trans-Neptunian objects should be uniformly distributed, as there is nothing for them to avoid, but if there are one or more perturbers, two situations may arise. One possibility is that the ETNOs are stable, and in this case they would tend to have their nodes away from the path of possible perturbers, he adds, but if they are unstable they would behave as the comets that interact with Jupiter do, that is tending to have one of the nodes close to the orbit of the hypothetical perturber”.

For the sake of their research, Doctors Carlos and Raul de la Fuente Marcos conducted calculations and data mining to analyze the nodes of 28 ETNOs and 24 extreme Centaurs (which also orbit the Sun at average distances of more than 150 AUs). What they noticed was that these two populations became clustered at certain distances from the Sun, and also noted a correlation between the positions of the nodes and the inclination of the objects.

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

This latter find was especially unexpected, and led them to conclude that the orbits of these populations were being affected by the presence of another body – much in the same way that the orbits of comets within our Solar System have been found to be affected by the way they interact with Jupiter. As De la Fuente Marcos emphasized:

“Assuming that the ETNOs are dynamically similar to the comets that interact with Jupiter, we interpret these results as signs of the presence of a planet that is actively interacting with them in a range of distances from 300 to 400 AU. We believe that what we are seeing here cannot be attributed to the presence of observational bias”.

As already mentioned, previous studies that have challenged the existence of Planet 9 cited how the study of TNOs have suffered from an observational bias. Basically, they have claimed that these studies made systematic errors in how they calculated the orientations in the orbits of TNOs, in large part because they had all been directed towards the same region of the sky.

By looking at the nodal distances of ETNOs, which depend on the size and shape of their orbits, this most recent study offers the first evidence of Planet 9’s existence that is relatively free of this bias. At the moment, only 28 ETNOs are known, but the authors are confident that the discovery of more – and the analysis of their nodes – will confirm their observations and place further constraints on the orbit of Planet 9.

A planetary mass object the size of Mars would be sufficient to produce the observed perturbations in the distant Kuiper Belt. Credit: Heather Roper/LPL

In addition, the pair of astronomers offered some thoughts on recent work that has suggested the possible existence of a Planet 10. While their study does not take into account the existence of a Mars-sized body – which is said to be responsible for an observable “warp” in the Kuiper Belt – they acknowledge that there is compelling evidence that such a planet-sized body exists. As de la Fuente Marcos said:

“Given the current definition of planet, this other mysterious object may not be a true planet, even if it has a size similar to that of the Earth, as it could be surrounded by huge asteroids or dwarf planets. In any case, we are convinced that Volk and Malhotra’s work has found solid evidence of the presence of a massive body beyond the so-called Kuiper Cliff, the furthest point of the trans-Neptunian belt, at some 50 AU from the Sun, and we hope to be able to present soon a new work which also supports its existence”.

It seems that the outer Solar System is getting more crowded with every passing year. And these planets, if and when they are confirmed, are likely to trigger another debate about which Solar bodies are rightly designated as planets and which ones aren’t. If you thought the “planetary debate” was controversial and divisive before, I recommend staying away from astronomy forums in the coming years!

Further Reading: SINC. MNRAS