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

New Horizons Team Already Finding Surprises on Next Flyby Target

While the New Horizons spacecraft was heading to Pluto, scientists from the mission used Hubble and other telescopes to try and find out more about the environment their spacecraft would be flying through. No one wanted New Horizons to run into unexpected dust or debris.

And now, as New Horizons prepares to fly past its next target, the Kuiper Belt Object known as 2014 MU69, mission scientists are using every tool at their disposal to examine this object and the surrounding region. The flyby will take place on January 1, 2019.

They’ve already uncovered some surprises.

On June 3, 2017, 2014 MU69 passed in front of a star – in an event called an occultation – providing a two-second glimpse of the object’s shadow.

A diagram of an occultation event, via the International Occultation Timing Association.

More than 50 mission team members and collaborators traveled to South Africa and Argentina to catch the occultation, setting up telescopes to capture the event. They are now looking through more than 100,000 images of the occultation star that can be used to assess the environment around this Kuiper Belt object (KBO). In addition, the Hubble Space Telescope and Gaia, a space observatory of the European Space Agency (ESA) also observed the event.

The team said that while MU69 itself eluded direct detection, the June 3 data provided valuable and unexpected insights that have already helped New Horizons.

“These results are telling us something really interesting,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “The fact that we accomplished the occultation observations from every planned observing site but didn’t detect the object itself likely means that either MU69 is highly reflective and smaller than some expected, or it may be a binary or even a swarm of smaller bodies left from the time when the planets in our solar system formed.”

Mission scientist Simon Porter said on Twitter, “The upshot is that MU69 is probably not as big and dark as it could have been, and (more importantly) doesn’t seem to have rings or a dust cloud,” adding later that the “lack of dust was reassuring.”

Again, no one wants to New Horizons to run into any surprising dust or debris.

The team will be observing two more occultation events on July 10 and July 17, and Porter said they should get even better constraints from these next two events.

Projected path of the 2014 MU69 occultation shadow, on July 10 (left) and July 17, 2017. Credit: Larry Wasserman/Lowell Observatory, via NASA.

On July 10, NASA’s airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will use its 100-inch (2.5-meter) telescope to probe the space around MU69 for debris that might present a hazard to New Horizons as it flies by in 18 months.

On July 17, the Hubble Space Telescope also will check for debris around MU69, while team members set up another ground-based “fence line” of small mobile telescopes along the predicted ground track of the occultation shadow in southern Argentina to try to better constrain, or even determine, the size of MU69.

Initial estimates of MU69’s diameter, based primarily on data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope since the KBO’s discovery in 2014, fall in the 12-25-mile (20-40-kilometer) range. However, the latest data from the June occultation seem to imply it’s at or even below the smallest estimated sizes.

“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,” Stern said back in August 2015 when the target was announced. “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.”

You can see the star brightness, predicted shadow path and other tech specs for the July 10 and July 17 occultation events at the embedded links.

Source: New Horizons

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

A Bored New Horizons Spacecraft Takes Part Time Job To Fill The Time

The New Horizons probe made history in July of 2015, being the first mission to ever conduct a close flyby of Pluto. In so doing, the mission revealed some never-before-seen things about this distant world. This included information about its many surface features, it’s atmosphere, magnetic environment, and its system of moons. It also provided images that allowed for the first detailed maps of the planet.

Having completed its rendezvous with Pluto, the probe has since been making its way towards its first encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – known as 2014 MU69. And in the meantime, it has been given a special task to keep it busy. Using archival data from the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), a team of scientists is taking advantage of New Horizon‘s position to conduct measurements of the Cosmic Optical Background (COB).

The COB is essentially the visible light from other galaxies which shines beyond the edge of the Milky Way. By measuring this light, astronomers are able to learn a great deal about the locations of stars, the size and density of galaxies, and test theories about the structure and formation of the Universe. This is no easy task, mind you, as any measurements conducted from inside the Solar System are subject to interference.

The trajectory of the New Horizons probe, which has taken it past Pluto and into the Kuiper Belt. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

Whereas Earth-based telescopes experience interference from our atmosphere, space-based telescopes have to contend with the brightness of our Sun. In addition, interplanetary dust (IPD) has the effect of scattering light in the Solar System (known as Zodiacal Light) which can also obscure light coming from distant sources. But a probe like New Horizons, which is well into the outer Solar System, is not subject to such interference.

Hence why a team of researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), UC Irvine and UC Berkeley, chose to use its data to measure the COB. Their study, titled “Measurement of the cosmic optical background using the long range reconnaissance imager on New Horizons“, was recently published in Nature Communications.

For the sake of this study, the team analyzed LORRI data obtained during NH’s cruise phase between Jupiter and Uranus. After using data from four different isolated fields in the sky (captured between 2007 and 2010), the team was able to obtain a statistical upper limit on the optical background’s brightness.

The study’s lead author, Michael Zevkov, is an assistant professor in RIT’s School of Physics and Astronomy and a member of RIT’s Center for Detectors and Future Photon Initiative. As he stated in an RIT press release:

“This result shows some of the promise of doing astronomy from the outer solar system. What we’re seeing is that the optical background is completely consistent with the light from galaxies and we don’t see a need for a lot of extra brightness; whereas previous measurements from near the Earth need a lot of extra brightness. The study is proof that this kind of measurement is possible from the outer solar system, and that LORRI is capable of doing it.”

Measuring the light from the Cosmic Optical Background is a way to test cosmological models that explain how the structure and evolution of the Universe. Credit: 2MASS/Caltech

Their results also showed that earlier measurements conducted by Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 were excessively bright (owing to interference). However, their results were consistent with previous measurements that were based on data obtained by the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions. Back in the 1970s, these probes managed to gather data on the Universe while swinging past Jupiter and exploring the outer Solar System.

By showing consistency with these results (and other measurements from over the years), the team demonstrated just how valuable missions like New Horizons are. It is hoped that before it wraps up in 2021, that scientists will have a chance to conduct more measurements of the COB. Considering how rare missions to the outer Solar System are, it is understandable why Zemcov and his colleagues want to take full advantage of this opportunity.

“NASA sends missions to the outer Solar System once a decade or so,” he said. “What they send is typically going to planets and the instruments onboard are designed to look at them, not to do astrophysics. Measurements could be designed to optimize this technique while LORRI is still functioning… With a carefully designed survey, we should be able to produce a definitive measurement of the diffuse light in the local universe and a tight constraint on the light from galaxies in the optical wavebands.”

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 other mission-related news, New Horizons probe will be taking a nap as it approaches its next destination – 2014 MU69. On Friday, April 7th, at 15:32 EDT, mission controllers at the John Hopkins University APL verified that the probe had entered hibernation. It will remain in this state for the next 157 days, waking up again on September 11th, 2017, as it makes its approach to 2014 MU69.

Originally, the New Horizons mission was scheduled to end after its historic encounter with Pluto. However, the mission was extended shortly thereafter to 2021 so the probe would also be able to make some more historic encounters. If, in the meantime, this probe can also shed new light on the mysteries of the Universe, it will surely be remembered as one of the most groundbreaking missions of all time.

Further Reading: RIT, Nature Communications

Colonizing the Outer Solar System

Colonizing The Outer Solar System


Okay, so this article is Colonizing the Outer Solar System, and is actually part 2 of our team up with Fraser Cain of Universe Today, who looked at colonizing the inner solar system. You might want jump over there now and watch that part first, if you are coming in from having seen part 1, welcome, it is great having you here.

Without further ado let us get started. There is no official demarcation between the inner and outer solar system but for today we will be beginning the outer solar system at the Asteroid Belt.

Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA

The Asteroid Belt is always of interest to us for colonization. We have talked about mining them before if you want the details on that but for today I’ll just remind everyone that there are very rich in metals, including precious metals like gold and platinum, and that provides all the motivation we need to colonize them. We have a lot of places to cover so we won’t repeat the details on that today.

You cannot terraform asteroids the way you could Venus or Mars so that you could walk around on them like Earth, but in every respect they have a lot going for them as a candidate. They’ve got plenty for rock and metal for construction, they have lots of the basic organic elements, and they even have some water. They also get a decent amount of sunlight, less than Mars let alone Earth, but still enough for use as a power source and to grow plants.

But they don’t have much gravity, which – pardon the pun – has its ups and downs. There just isn’t much mass in the Belt. The entire thing has only a small fraction of the mass of our moon, and over half of that is in the four biggest asteroids, essentially dwarf planets in their own right. The remainder is scattered over millions of asteroids. Even the biggest, Ceres, is only about 1% of 1% of Earth’s mass, has a surface gravity of 3% Earth-normal, and an escape velocity low enough most model rockets could get into orbit. And again, it is the biggest, most you could get away from by jumping hard and if you dropped an object on one it might take a few minutes to land.

Don't blink... an artist's conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.
Don’t blink… an artist’s conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.

You can still terraform one though, by definition too. The gentleman who coined the term, science fiction author Jack Williamson, who also coined the term genetic engineering, used it for a smaller asteroid just a few kilometers across, so any definition of terraforming has to include tiny asteroids too.

Of course in that story it’s like a small planet because they had artificial gravity, we don’t, if we want to fake gravity without having mass we need to spin stuff around. So if we want to terraform an asteroid we need to hollow it out and fill it with air and spin it around.

Of course you do not actually hollow out the asteroid and spin it, asteroids are loose balls of gravel and most would fly apart given any noticeable spin. Instead you would hollow it out and set a cylinder spinning inside it. Sort of like how a good thermos has an outside container and inside one with a layer of vacuum in between, we would spin the inner cylinder.

You wouldn’t have to work hard to hollow out an asteroid either, most aren’t big enough to have sufficient gravity and pressure to crush an empty beer can even at their center. So you can pull matter out from them very easily and shore up the sides with very thin metal walls or even ice. Or just have your cylinder set inside a second non-spinning outer skin or superstructure, like your washer or dryer.

You can then conduct your mining from the inside, shielded from space. You could ever pressurize that hollowed out area if your spinning living area was inside its own superstructure. No gravity, but warmth and air, and you could get away with just a little spin without tearing it apart, maybe enough for plants to grow to normally.

It should be noted that you can potentially colonize even the gas giants themselves, even though our focus today is mostly on their moons. That requires a lot more effort and technology then the sorts of colonies we are discussing today, Fraser and I decided to keep things near-future and fairly low tech, though he actually did an article on colonizing Jupiter itself last year that was my main source material back before got to talking and decided to do a video together.

Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach
Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach

Hydrogen is plentiful on Jupiter itself and floating refineries or ships that fly down to scoop it up might be quite useful, but again today we are more interested in its moons. The biggest problem with colonizing the moons of Jupiter is all the radiation the planet gives off.

Europa is best known as a place where the surface is covered with ice but beneath it is thought to be a vast subsurface ocean. It is the sixth largest moon coming right behind our own at number five and is one of the original four moons Galileo discovered back in 1610, almost two centuries before we even discovered Uranus, so it has always been a source of interest. However as we have discovered more planets and moons we have come to believe quite a few of them might also have subsurface oceans too.

Now what is neat about them is that water, liquid water, always leaves the door open to the possibility of life already existing there. We still know so little about how life originally evolved and what conditions permit that to occur that we cannot rule out places like Europa already having their own plants and animals swimming around under that ice.

They probably do not and obviously we wouldn’t want to colonize them, beyond research bases, if they did, but if they do not they become excellent places to colonize. You could have submarine cities in such places floating around in the sea or those buried in the surface ice layer, well shielded from radiation and debris. The water also geysers up to the surface in some places so you can start off near those, you don’t have to drill down through kilometers of ice on day one.

Water, and hydrogen, are also quite uncommon in the inner solar system so having access to a place like Europa where the escape velocity is only about a fifth of our own is quite handy for export. Now as we move on to talk about moons a lot it is important to note that when I say something has a fifth of the escape velocity of Earth that doesn’t mean it is fives time easier to get off of. Energy rises with the square of velocity so if you need to go five times faster you need to spend 5-squared or 25 times more energy, and even more if that place has tons of air creating friction and drag, atmospheres are hard to claw your way up through though they make landing easier too. But even ignoring air friction you can move 25 liters of water off of Europa for every liter you could export from Earth and even it is a very high in gravity compared to most moons and comets. Plus we probably don’t want to export lots of water, or anything else, off of Earth anyway.

Artist's concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA

We should start by noting two things. First, the Asteroid Belt is not the only place you find asteroids, Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids are nearly as numerous, and every planet, including Earth, has an equivalent to Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids at its own Lagrange Points with the Sun. Though just as Jupiter dwarfs all the other planets so to does its collection of Lagrangian objects. They can quite big too, the largest 624 Hektor, is 400 km across, and has a size and shape similar to Pennsylvania.

And as these asteroids are at stable Lagrange Points, they orbit with Jupiter but always ahead and behind it, making transit to and from Jupiter much easier and making good waypoints.

Before we go out any further in the solar system we should probably address how you get the energy to stay alive. Mars is already quite cold compared to Earth, and the Asteroids and Jupiter even more so, but with thick insulation and some mirrors to bounce light in you can do fairly decently. Indeed, sunlight out by Jupiter is already down to just 4% of what Earth gets, meaning at Jovian distances it is about 50 W/m²

That might not sound like much but it is actually almost a third of what average illumination is on Earth, when you factor in atmospheric reflection, cloudy days, nighttime, and higher, colder latitudes. It is also a good deal brighter than the inside of most well-lit buildings, and is enough for decently robust photosynthesis to grow food. Especially with supplemental light from mirrors or LED growth lamps.

But once you get out to Saturn and further that becomes increasingly impractical and a serious issue, because while food growth does not show up on your electric bill it is what we use virtually all our energy for. Closer in to the sun we can use solar panels for power and we do not need any power to grow food. As we get further out we cannot use solar and we need to heat or cold habitats and supply lighting for food, so we need a lot more power even as our main source dries up.

So what are our options? Well the first is simple, build bigger mirrors. A mirror can be quite large and paper thin after all. Alternatively we can build those mirrors far away, closer to the sun, and and either focus them on the place we want illuminated or send an energy beam, microwaves perhaps or lasers, out to the destination to supply energy.

We also have the option of using fission, if we can find enough Uranium or Thorium. There is not a lot of either in the solar system, in the area of about one part per billion, but that does amount to hundreds of trillions of tons, and it should only take a few thousand tons a year to supply Earth’s entire electric grid. So we would be looking at millions of years worth of energy supply.

Of course fusion is even better, particularly since hydrogen becomes much more abundant as you get further from the Sun. We do not have fusion yet, but it is a technology we can plan around probably having inside our lifetimes, and while uranium and thorium might be counted in parts per billion, hydrogen is more plentiful than every other element combines, especially once you get far from the Sun and Inner Solar System.

So it is much better power source, an effectively unlimited one except on time scales of billions and trillion of years. Still, if we do not have it, we still have other options. Bigger mirrors, beaming energy outwards from closer to the Sun, and classic fission of Uranium and Thorium. Access to fusion is not absolutely necessary but if you have it you can unlock the outer solar system because you have your energy supply, a cheap and abundant fuel supply, and much faster and cheaper spaceships.

Of course hydrogen, plain old vanilla hydrogen with one proton, like the sun uses for fusion, is harder to fuse than deuterium and may be a lot longer developing, we also have fusion using Helium-3 which has some advantages over hydrogen, so that is worth keeping in mind as well as we proceed outward.

Since NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet's appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet’s appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Okay, let’s move on to Saturn, and again our focus is on its moons more than the planet itself. The biggest of those an the most interesting for colonization is Titan.

Titan is aptly named, this titanic moon contains more mass than than all of Saturn’s sixty or so other moons and by an entire order of magnitude at that. It is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, and one where the surface pressure is 45% higher than here on Earth. Even though Titan is much smaller than Earth, its atmosphere is about 20% more massive than our own. It’s almost all nitrogen too, even more than our own atmosphere, so while you would need a breather mask to supply oxygen and it is also super-cold, so you’d need a thick insulated suit, it doesn’t have to be a pressure suit like it would on Mars or almost anyplace else.

There’s no oxygen in the atmosphere, what little isn’t nitrogen is mostly methane and hydrogen, but there is plenty of oxygen in the ice on Titan which is quite abundant. So it has everything we need for life except energy and gravity. At 14% of earth normal it is probably too low for people to comfortably and safely adapt to, but we’ve already discussed ways of dealing with that. It is low enough that you could probably flap your arms and fly, if you had wing attached.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it's own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com
On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it’s own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com

It needs some source of energy though, and we discussed that. Obviously if you’ve got fusion you have all the hydrogen you need, but Titan is one of those places we would probably want to colonize early on if we could, it is something you need a lot of to terraform other places, and is also rich in a lot of the others things we want. So we often think of it as a low-tech colony since it is one we would want early on.

In an scenario like that it is very easy to imagine a lot of local transit between Titan and its smaller neighboring moons, which are more rocky and might be easier to dig fissile materials like Uranium and Thorium out of. You might have a dozen or so small outposts on neighboring moons mining fissile materials and other metals and a big central hub on Titan they delivered that too which also exported Nitrogen to other colonies in the solar system.

Moving back and forth between moons is pretty easy, especially since things landing on Titan can aerobrake quite easily, whereas Titan itself has a pretty strong gravity well and thick atmosphere to climb out of but is a good candidate for a space elevator, since it requires nothing more sophisticated than a Lunar Elevator on our own moon and has an abundant supply of the materials needed to make Zylon for instance, a material strong enough to make an elevator there and which we can mass manufacture right now.

Titan might be the largest and most useful of Saturn’s moons, but again it isn’t the only one and not all of the other are just rocks for mining. At last count it has over sixty and many of them quite large. One of those, Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, is a lot like Jupiter’s Moon Europa, in that we believe it has a large and thick subsurface ocean. So just like Europa it is an interesting candidate for Colonization. So Titan might be the hub for Saturn but it wouldn’t be the only significant place to colonize.

Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)
Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)

While Saturn is best known for its amazing rings, they tend to be overlooked in colonization. Now those rings are almost all ice and in total mass about a quarter as much as Enceladus, which again is Saturn’s Sixth largest moon, which is itself not even a thousandth of the Mass of Titan.

In spite of that the rings are not a bad place to set up shop. Being mostly water, they are abundant in hydrogen for fusion fuel and have little mass individually makes them as easy to approach or leave as an asteroid. Just big icebergs in space really, and there are many moonlets in the rings that can be as large as half a kilometer across. So you can burrow down inside one for protection from radiation and impacts and possibly mine smaller ones for their ice to be brought to places where water is not abundant.

In total those rings, which are all frozen water, only mass about 2% of Earth’s oceans, and about as much as the entire Antarctic sheet. So it is a lot of fresh water that is very easy to access and move elsewhere, and ice mines in the rings of Saturn might be quite useful and make good homes. Living inside an iceball might not sound appealing but it is better than it sounds like and we will discuss that more when we reach the Kupier Belt.

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

But first we still have two more planets to look at, Uranus and Neptune.

Uranus, and Neptune, are sometimes known as Ice Giants instead of Gas Giants because it has a lot more water. It also has more ammonia and methane and all three get called ices in this context because they make up most of the solid matter when you get this far out in the solar system.

While Jupiter is over a thousand times the mass of Earth, Uranus weighs in at about 15 times the Earth and has only about double the escape velocity of Earth itself, the least of any of the gas giants, and it’s strange rotation, and its strange tilt contributes to it having much less wind than other giants. Additionally the gravity is just a little less than Earth’s in the atmosphere so we have the option for floating habitats again, though it would be a lot more like a submarine than a hot air balloon.

Like Venus, Uranus has very long days, at least in terms of places receiving continual sunlight, the poles get 42 years of perpetual sunlight then 42 of darkness. Sunlight being a relative term, the light is quite minimal especially inside the atmosphere. The low wind in many places makes it a good spot for gas extraction, such as Helium-3, and it’s a good planet to try to scoop gas from or even have permanent installations.

Now Uranus has a large collection of moons as well, useful and colonizable like the other moons we have looked at, but otherwise unremarkable beyond being named for characters from Shakespeare, rather than the more common mythological names. None have atmospheres though there is a possibility Oberon or Titania might have subsurface oceans.

Neptune makes for a brief entry, it is very similar to Uranus except it has the characteristically high winds of gas giants that Uranus’s skewed poles mitigate, meaning it has no advantages over Uranus and the disadvantages of high wind speeds everywhere and being even further from the Sun. It too has moons and one of them, Triton, is thought to have subsurface oceans as well. Triton also presumably has a good amount of nitrogen inside it since it often erupts geysers of nitrogen from its surface.

Neptune's largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA
Neptune’s largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA

Triton is one of the largest moons in the solar system, coming in seventh just after our Moon, number 5, and Europa at number 6. Meaning that were it not a moon it would probably qualify as a Dwarf Planet and it is often thought Pluto might be an escaped moon Neptune. So Triton might be one that didn’t escape, or didn’t avoid getting captured. In fact there are an awful lot of bodies in this general size range and composition wandering about in the outer regions of our solar system as we get out into the Kuiper Belt.

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

The Kuiper Belt is one of those things that has a claim on the somewhat arbitrary and hazy boundary marking the edge of the Solar System. It extends from out past Neptune to beyond Pluto and contains a good deal more mass than the asteroid Belt. It is where a lot of our comets come from and while there is plenty of rocks out there they tend to be covered in ice. In other words it is like our asteroid belt only there’s more of it and the one thing the belt is not very abundant in, water and hydrogen in general, is quite abundant out there. So if you have a power source life fusion they can be easily terraformed and are just as attractive as a source of minerals as the various asteroids and moons closer in.

Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA
Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA

We mentioned the idea of living inside hollowed out asteroids earlier and you can use the same trick for comets. Indeed you could shape them to be much bigger if you like, since they would be hollow and ice isn’t hard to move and shape especially in zero gravity. Same trick as before, you place a spinning cylinder inside it. Not all the objects entirely ice and indeed your average comet is more a frozen ball of mud then ice with rocky cores. We think a lot of near Earth Asteroids are just leftover comets. So they are probably pretty good homes if you have fusion, lots of fuel and raw materials for both life and construction.

This is probably your cheapest interstellar spacecraft too, in terms of effort anyway. People often talk about re-directing comets to Mars to bring it air and water, but you can just as easily re-direct it out of the solar system entirely. Comets tend to have highly eccentric orbits, so if you capture one when it is near the Sun you can accelerate it then, actually benefiting from the Oberth Effect, and drive it out of the solar system into deep space. If you have a fusion power source to live inside one then you also have an interstellar spaceship drive, so you just carve yourself a small colony inside the comet and head out into deep space.

You’ve got supplies that will last you many centuries at least, even if it were home to tens of thousand of people, and while we think of smaller asteroids and comets as tiny, that’s just in comparison to planets. These things tend to be the size of mountain so there is plenty of living space and a kilometer of dirty ice between you and space makes a great shield against even the kinds of radiation and collisions you can experience at relativistic speeds.

Artists' impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, showing both the origin and path of Halley's Comet. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
Artists’ impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL

Now the Oort Cloud is much like the Kupier Belt but begins even further out and extends out probably an entire light year or more. We don’t have a firm idea of its exact dimensions or mass, but the current notion is that it has at least several Earth’s worth of mass, mostly in various icy bodies. These will be quite numerous, estimates usually assumes at least trillion icy bodies a kilometer across or bigger, and even more smaller ones. However the volume of space is so large that those kilometer wide bodies might each be a around a billion kilometers distant from neighbors, or about a light hour. So it is spread out quite thinly, and even the inner edge is about 10 light days away.

That means that from a practical standpoint there is no source of power out there, the sun is simply too diffuse for even massive collections of mirrors and solar panels to be of use. It also means light-speed messages home or to neighbors are quite delayed. So in terms of communication it is a lot more like pre-modern times in sparsely settled lands where talking with your nearest neighbors might require an hour long walk over to their farm, and any news from the big cities might take months to percolate out to you.

There’s probably uranium and thorium out there to be found, maybe a decent amount of it, so fission as a power source is not ruled out. If you have fusion instead though each of these kilometer wide icy bodies is like a giant tank of gasoline, and as with the Kupier Belt, ice makes a nice shield against impacts and radiation.

And while there might be trillions of kilometer wide chunks of ice out there, and many more smaller bodies, you would have quite a few larger ones too. There are almost certainly tons of planets in the Pluto size-range out these, and maybe even larger ones. Even after the Oort cloud you would still have a lot of these deep space rogue planets which could bridge the gap to another solar system’s Oort Cloud. So if you have fusion you have no shortage of energy, and could colonize trillions of these bodies. There probably is a decent amount of rock and metal out there too, but that could be your major import/export option shipping home ice and shipping out metals.

That’s the edge of the Solar System so that’s the end of this article. If you haven’t already read the other half, colonizing the inner Solar System, head on over now.

Astronomers Think They Know Where Rosetta’s Comet Came From

In the distant past, the orbit of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko extended far beyond Neptune into the refrigerated Kuiper Belt. Interactions with the gravitational giant Jupiter altered the comet's orbit over time, dragging it into the inner Solar System. Credit: Western University, Canada
In the distant past, the orbit of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko extended far beyond Neptune into the refrigerated Kuiper Belt. Interactions with the gravitational giant Jupiter altered the comet’s orbit over time, dragging it into the inner Solar System. Credit: Western University, Canada

Rosetta’s Comet hails from a cold, dark place. Using statistical analysis and scientific computing, astronomers at Western University in Canada have charted a path that most likely pinpoints comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s long-ago home in the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt, a vast region beyond Neptune home to icy asteroids and comets.

According to the new research, Rosetta’s Comet is relative newcomer to the inner parts of our Solar System, having only arrived about 10,000 years ago. Prior to that, it spent the last 4.5 billion years in cold storage in a rough-and-tumble region of the Kuiper Belt called the scattered disk.

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

In the Solar System’s youth, asteroids that strayed too close to Neptune were scattered by the encounter into the wild blue yonder of the disk. Their orbits still bear the scars of those long-ago encounters: they’re often highly-elongated (shaped like a cigar) and tilted willy-nilly from the ecliptic plane up to 40°. Because their orbits can take them hundreds of Earth-Sun distances into the deeps of space, scattered disk objects are among the coldest places in the Solar System with surface temperatures around 50° above absolute zero. Ices that glommed together to form 67P at its birth are little changed today. Primordial stuff.


Watch how Rosetta’s Comet’s orbit has evolved since the comet’s formation

There are two basic comet groups. Most comets reside in the cavernous Oort Cloud, a roughly spherical-shaped region of space between 10,000 and 100,000 AU (astronomical unit = one Earth-Sun distance) from the Sun. The other major group, the Jupiter-family comets, owes its allegiance to the powerful gravity of the giant planet Jupiter. These comets race around the Sun with periods of less than 20 years. It’s thought they originate from collisions betwixt rocky-icy asteroids in the Kuiper Belt.

Fragments flung from the collisions are perturbed by Neptune into long, cigar-shaped orbits that bring them near Jupiter, which ropes them like calves with its insatiable gravity and re-settles them into short-period orbits.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a Jupiter-family comet. Its 6.5 year journey around the Sun takes it from just beyond the orbit of Jupiter at its most distant, to between the orbits of Earth and Mars at its closest. Credit: ESA with labels by the author
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a Jupiter-family comet. Its 6.5 year journey around the Sun takes it from just beyond the orbit of Jupiter at its most distant to between the orbits of Earth and Mars at its closest. Credit: ESA with labels by the author

Mattia Galiazzo and solar system expert Paul Wiegert, both at Western University, showed that in transit, Rosetta’s Comet likely spent millions of years in the scattered disk at about twice the distance of Neptune. The fact that it’s now a Jupiter family comet hints of a possible long-ago collision followed by gravitational interactions with Neptune and Jupiter before finally becoming an inner Solar System homebody going around the Sun every 6.45 years.

By such long paths do we arrive at our present circumstances.

A New Dwarf Planet Joins The Solar System Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Horizons Sends Back First Science On Distant Kuiper Belt Object

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)

Even the most curmudgeonly anti-space troll has to admit that the New Horizons mission to Pluto has been an overwhelming success.

It’s not like New Horizons discovered life or anything, but it did bring an otherwise cold, distant lump to life for humanity. Vivid images and detailed scientific data revealed Pluto as a dynamic, changing world, with an active surface and an atmosphere. And we haven’t even received all of the data from New Horizons’ mission to Pluto yet.

Fresh off its historic visit to Pluto, New Horizons is headed for the Kuiper Belt, and just sent back its first science on one of the denizens of the distant belt of objects. The target in this case is 1994 JR1, a 145 km (90 mi.) wide Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). that orbits the Sun at a distance greater than 5 billion km. (3 billion mi.) New Horizons has now observed 1994 JR1 twice, and the team behind the mission has garnered new insights into this KBO based on these observations.

The spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) captured images of 1994 JR1 on April 7th-8th from a distance of 111 million km. (69 million mi.). That’s far closer than the images New Horizons captured in November 2015 from a distance of 280 million km (170 million miles).

This image, taken with the LORRI instrument aboard New Horizons, shows 2 of the 20 images captured in April. The moving dots are 1994 JR1, shown against a backdrop of stationary stars. The circular object in the top left of the image is a reflective artifact of the camera itself, showing LORRI's three support arms. Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This image, taken with the LORRI instrument aboard New Horizons, shows 2 of the 20 images captured in April. The moving dots are 1994 JR1, shown against a backdrop of stationary stars. The circular object in the top left of the image is a reflective artifact of the camera itself, showing LORRI’s three support arms. Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons science team member Simon Porter, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder Colorado, commented on the importance of these images. “Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), far better than any small KBO,” Porter said.

Porter added that this accurate measurement of the KBO’s orbit allows New Horizons science team members to quash the idea that JR1 is a quasi-satellite of Pluto.

The team was also able to determine, by measuring the light reflected from the surface, that JR1’s rotational period is only 5.4 hours. That’s fast for a KBO. John Spencer, another New Horizons science team member from SwRI, said “This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before.”

Variations in the brightness of light reflected from the  surface of 1994 JR1 allowed science team members to pinpoint the object's  rotation period at 5.4 hours.    Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Variations in the brightness of light reflected from the surface of 1994 JR1 allowed science team members to pinpoint the object’s rotation period at 5.4 hours.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

KBOs are ancient remnants of the early days of the Solar System. Whereas the inner regions of the Solar System were largely swept clean as the planets formed, the Kuiper Belt remained mostly as it is, untouched by the gravity of the planets.

There are trillions of objects in this cold, distant part of the Solar System. The Kuiper Belt itself spans a distance that is 30 to 50 times greater than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. It’s similar to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but Kuiper Belt objects are icy, whereas asteroid belt objects are rocky, for the most part.

The New Horizons team has requested a mission extension, and if that extension is approved, the target is already chosen. In August 2015, NASA selected the KBO 2014 MU69, which resides in an orbit almost a billion miles beyond Pluto. There were two potential destinations for the spacecraft after it departed Pluto, and 2014 MU69 was recommended by the New Horizons team, and chosen by NASA.

If New Horizons' mission is extended, this is the path it will take to its next destination, 2014 MU69. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker)
If New Horizons’ mission is extended, this is the path it will take to its next destination, 2014 MU69. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker)

Choosing New Horizons’ next target early was important for fuel use. Fuel conservation allows the spacecraft to perform the maneuvers necessary to reach 2014 MU69. If all goes well, New Horizons should reach its next target by January 2019.

According to Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, there are good reasons to visit 2014 MU69. “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,” he said. “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.”

The Decadal Survey in 2003 strongly recommended that flybys of Pluto and small KBOs should be conducted. The KBO is an unexplored region, and these flybys will allow us to sample the diversity of objects in the belt.

If New Horizons makes it to its next target, 2014 MU69, and delivers the types of results it has so far in its journey, it will be an unprecedented success. The kind of success that will make it harder and harder to be a curmudgeonly anti-space troll.

Wait. Who am I kidding.

Haters gonna hate.