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

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