About that Giant Planet Possibly Hiding in the Outer Solar System…

Siding Spring Comet via WISE. credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA


An old story got new legs this week as word went viral of a possible new 9th planet in our solar system – a gas giant bigger than Jupiter – which could be hiding somewhere in the Oort Cloud, just waiting to be found.

An article this week in The Independent suggested the new planet, called Tyche, had already been found among data from the WISE mission. This prompted the WISE team to post a rebuttal on their Facebook page: “Not true. A pair of scientists published a paper stating that if such a big planet exists in the far reaches of the Solar System, then WISE should have seen it. That is true. But, analysis over the next couple of years will be needed to determine if WISE has actually detected such a world or not.”

To make sense of this all, Universe Today sought out a scientist who has looked at the outer solar system as much as anyone, if not more: Mike Brown, of Eris, Haumea and Makemake fame – to get his take on Tyche.

“Yes,” said Brown, “this is all getting pretty funny these days!”

The story starts at least a decade ago. For years John Matese of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and colleague Daniel Whitmire have been trying to figure out why many of the comets that originate from way out in the distant-most part of our solar system — the Oort Cloud — have strange orbits that don’t jive with theories of how comets should behave. The two scientists first suggested that the gravitational influence from a dark companion to the Sun — a dim brown-dwarf or red-dwarf star — was sending comets careening towards the inner solar system. They called it Nemesis, (another thing that went viral), but the Nemesis idea has widely been refuted.

Last year, Matese and Whitmire suggested that possibly a large planet four times the mass of Jupiter in the Oort Cloud could explain why long-period comets appear to be clustered in a band inclined to the ecliptic instead of coming from random directions. (Here’s their paper.)

Then came a revival of their theory with several articles about it this week, reporting it as seemingly fact.

Could there possibly be a giant planet 500 times as distant as Neptune?

“Absolutely,” Brown said. “Many people have speculated about such possibilities for a long time. It’s an intriguing idea because, well, it would be fun, to say the least.”

But beyond fun and excitement, is there actually any evidence for it?

The layout of the solar system, including the Oort Cloud, on a logarithmic scale. Credit: NASA

“Well, the quality of the data that Matese and Whitmire have to work with is pretty crummy –no fault of their own — it’s just the historical record of where comets have come from,” Brown said in an email. “I don’t believe that anyone understands the ins and outs of the data set well enough to really draw a robust conclusion. But, Matese and Whitmire did the best they could and think the data point to something out there.”

Does Brown think there is really something out there?

“Well,” he said, “if I had to bet one way or another I’d bet no. The data don’t convince me, and there is no other hint anywhere that such a thing is real. So I’m pretty skeptical.”

That being said, however, Brown believes WISE really does have a good chance of detecting this type of object way out there – if it exists — even if the predictions have nothing to do with the real object.

“This is something that people will absolutely be looking for when the data are released,” Brown said, “and, indeed, the WISE team is undoubtedly already looking for — not because of the prediction, but simply because it’s the right way to search this unknown region of the solar system!”

So don’t worry about the International Astronomical Union having to confirm or name a new planet in our solar system, at least for now.

Stellar Occultation by Eris

On November 6, 2010, the dwarf planet Eris occulted a faint 16 magnitude star and this was the first time astronomers were able to witness an occultation by Eris. Additionally, at 96.6 Astronomical Units away, it was the most distant object for which this kind of occultation — where one astronomical object passes in front of another — had been seen. Why was this dim, distant event important? It has helped refine the size of what is (was?) thought to be the biggest dwarf planet (yes, I know, an oxymoron) we know of.

“Most of the ways we have of measuring the sizes of objects in the outer solar system are fraught with difficulties,” wrote astronomer and discoverer of Eris, Mike Brown, on his website ‘Mike Brown’s Planets.’ “But, precisely timed occultations like these have the potential to provide incredibly precise answers.”
Continue reading “Stellar Occultation by Eris”

Fog on Titan? Help Review Mike Brown’s Paper

Fog on Titan. Credit: Mike Brown, et al.

Titan is the only place in the solar system other than the earth that appears to have large quantities of liquid sitting on the surface. Granted, conditions on Titan are quite different than on Earth. For one thing, it’s a lot colder on Titan and the liquids there are various types of hydrocarbons. “Methane is to Titan what water is to the earth,” says astronomer Mike Brown (yes, that guy, of Pluto, Eris and Makemake fame.) But now Brown and his colleagues have discovered another similarity. Titan has fog. “All of those bright sparkly reddish white patches (shown in the image here) are fog banks hanging out at the surface in Titan’s late southern summer,” Brown wrote in his blog.


But how does this happen? Fog only usually appears when 1.) there is liquid in the atmosphere (i.e., that means it must be “humid” on Titan) and 2.) the air temperature cools drastically. But Titan’s atmosphere is extremely thick, so it cools slowly. Plus the atmosphere is already really cold and making it colder would be difficult.

“If you were to turn the sun totally off,” said Brown, “Titan’s atmosphere would still take something like 100 years to cool down. And even the coldest parts of the surface are much too warm to ever cause fog to condense.”

So what is going on there?

To get the humidity in Titan’s atmosphere, Brown said the liquid methane must be evaporating.
“Evaporating methane means it must have rained,” he wrote. “Rain means streams and pools and erosion and geology. Fog means that Titan has a currently active methane hydrological cycle doing who knows what on Titan.”

Plus, the only one way to make the fog stick around on the ground for any amount of time is have both humidity and cool air. And the only way to cool the air on Titan is have it in contact with something cold: like a pool of evaporating liquid methane.

Brown said the fog doesn’t appear to be around the just the dark areas near the south pole that likely are hydrocarbon lakes. “It looks like it might be more or less everywhere at the south pole. My guess is that the southern summer polar rainy season that we have witnessed over the past few years has deposited small pools of liquid methane all over the pole. It’s slowly evaporating back into the atmosphere where it will eventually drift to the northern pole where, I think, we can expect another stormy summer season. Stay tuned. Northern summer solstice is in 2016.”

And here comes the fun part (as if fog on Titan wasn’t fun enough!) Brown is looking for a little citizen science help. You can read the paper on this by Brown and his colleagues here. Most peer review is done by one person, and brown would like a few more eyes to see this paper to look for any flaws, and to see if their arguments make sense and are convincing.

Brown says: “I thought I would try an experiment of my own here. It goes like this: feel free to provide a review of my paper! I know this is not for everyone. Send it directly to me or comment here (at his blog). I will take serious comments as seriously as those of the official reviewer and will incorporate changes into the final version of the paper before it is published.

Please, though, serious reviewers only.

Source: Mike Brown’s Blog