Flying to (Hypothetical) Planet 9: Why visit it, how could we get there, and would it surprise us like Pluto?

In a recent study submitted to Earth and Planetary Astrophysics, an international team of researchers discuss the various mission design options for reaching a hypothetical Planet 9, also known as “Planet X”, which state-of-the-art models currently estimate to possess a semi-major axis of approximately 400 astronomical units (AU). The researchers postulate that sending a spacecraft to Planet 9 could pose scientific benefits much like when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft visited Pluto in 2015. But does Planet 9 actually exist?

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Planet 9 is Running out of Places to Hide

Illustration of the hypothetical Planet 9. Credit: R. Hurt/IPAC, Caltech

We have a pretty good idea of what lurks within our solar system. We know there isn’t a Mars-sized planet orbiting between Jupiter and Saturn, nor a brown dwarf nemesis heading our way. Anything large and fairly close to the Sun would be easily spotted. But we can’t rule out a smaller, more distant world, such as the hypothetical Planet 9 (or Planet 10 if you want to throw down over Pluto). The odds against such a planet existing are fairly high, and a recent study finds it even less likely.

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A 6-Year Search of the Outer Solar System Turns up 461 new Objects (but no Planet 9)

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

In the near future, astronomers will benefit from the presence of next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST). At the same time, improved data mining and machine learning techniques will also allow astronomers to get more out of existing instruments. In the process, they hope to finally answer some of the most burning questions about the cosmos.

For instance, the Dark Energy Survey (DES ), an international, collaborative effort to map the cosmos, recently released the results of their six-year survey of the outer Solar System. In addition to gathering data on hundreds of known objects, this survey revealed 461 previously undetected objects. The results of this study could have significant implications for our understanding of the Solar System’s formation and evolution.

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If Planet 9 is a Primordial Black Hole, We Might Be Able to See Flares When it Consumes Comets

Artist's conception of accretion flares resulting from the encounter of an Oort-cloud comet and a hypothesized black hole in the outer solar system. Credit: M. Weiss

A comet-eating black hole the size of a planet? It’s possible. And if there’s one out there in the distant Solar System, a pair of researchers think they know how to find it.

If they do, we might finally put the Planet 9 issue to rest.

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Maybe the Elusive Planet 9 Doesn’t Exist After All

The imagined view from Planet Nine looking back toward the sun. Astronomers think the huge, distant planet is gaseous, similar to the other giant planets in our solar system.

Oh Planet Nine, when will you stop toying with us?

Whether you call it Planet Nine, Planet X, the Perturber, Jehoshaphat, “Phattie,” or any of the other proposed names—either serious or flippant—this scientific back and forth over its existence is getting exhausting.

Is this what it was like when they were arguing whether Earth is flat or round?

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More Evidence that Planet 9 is Really Out There

Artist's impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune's orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. The sky view and appearance are based on the conjectures of its co-proposer, Mike Brown. Image Credit: By nagualdesign; Tom Ruen, background taken from File:ESO - Milky Way.jpg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47069857
Artist's impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune's orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. The sky view and appearance are based on the conjectures of its co-proposer, Mike Brown. Image Credit: By nagualdesign; Tom Ruen, background taken from File:ESO - Milky Way.jpg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47069857

What’s going on in the distant reaches of our Solar System? Is there a Planet 9 out there?

Out in the frigid expanse of our System, there are bodies on orbital paths that don’t make sense in terms of our eight-planet Solar System. There seems to be an undiscovered body out there, several times more massive than Earth, shaping the orbits of some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), and driving astronomers to look deeper and more thoroughly into the extreme reaches of our System.

What they’re looking for is the mysterious, and so far unproven, ninth planet.

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The Record for the Most Distant Object in the Solar System has been Shattered. Introducing FarFarOut at 140 Astronomical Units

Artist concept of 2018 VG18 "Farout". Credit Roberto Molar Candanosa/Carnegie Institution for Science.
Artist concept of 2018 VG18 "Farout". Credit Roberto Molar Candanosa/Carnegie Institution for Science.

Remember Far Out, the distant planet at the far reaches of the Solar System, that was discovered in December, 2018? Well, it has been kicked unceremoniously off its pedestal as the most distant object after a short, two-month reign. In its place is the very newly-discovered FarFarOut (FFO.)

And if it weren’t for a heavy snowfall, things might have turned out differently.

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A Disc of Icy Material, not Planet 9, Might Explain the Strange Movements in the Outer Solar System

Could a disk of icy material be responsible for the strange orbits of distand objects in our Solar System? Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Could a disk of icy material be responsible for the strange orbits of distand objects in our Solar System? Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Is there or isn’t there a Planet 9? Is there a planet way out on the outskirts of our Solar System, with sufficient mass to explain the movements of distant objects? Or is a disc of icy material responsible? There’s no direct evidence yet of an actual Planet 9, but something with sufficient mass is affecting the orbits of distant Solar System objects.

A new study suggests that a disc of icy material causes the strange movements of outer Solar System objects, and that we don’t need to invent another planet to explain those movements. The study comes from
Professor Jihad Touma, from the American University of Beirut, and
Antranik Sefilian, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Their results are published in the Astronomical Journal.

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New Dwarf Planet Found in the Outskirts of the Solar System, Giving Astronomers More Ammunition to Search for Evidence of Planet 9

"The Goblin", or dwarf planet 2015 TG387 shown in comparison to our Solar System's other planets. Image: Illustration by Roberto Molar Candanosa and Scott Sheppard, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science.
"The Goblin", or dwarf planet 2015 TG387 shown in comparison to our Solar System's other planets. Image: Illustration by Roberto Molar Candanosa and Scott Sheppard, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science.

Astronomers have found a new dwarf planet way out beyond Pluto that never gets closer than 65 AUs to the Sun. It’s nicknamed “The Goblin” which is much more interesting than its science name, 2015 TG387. The Goblin’s orbit is consistent with the much-talked-about but yet-to-be-proven Planet 9.

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It Might Not be Planet 9 Causing Disruptions in the Kuiper Belt, Just the Collective Gravity of Everything Out There

Artist's concept of the hypothetical "Planet Nine". Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Robert Hurt

In January of 2016, astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin published the first evidence that there might be another planet in our Solar System. Known as “Planet 9” (or “Planet X”, to those who contest the controversial 2006 Resolution by the IAU), this hypothetical body was believed to orbit at an extreme distance from our Sun, as evidenced by the fact that certain Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) all seem to be pointing in the same direction.

Since that time, other lines of evidence have emerged that have bolstered the existence of Planet 9/Planet X. However, a team of researchers from CU Boulder recently proposed an alternative explanation. According to their research, it could be interactions between Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) themselves that might explain the strange dynamics of “detached objects” at the edge of the Solar System.

The researchers presented their findings at the 232nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which ran from June 3-7 in Denver, Colorado. The presentation took place on June 4th during a press conference titled “Minor Planets, Dwarf Planets & Exoplanets”. The research was led Jacob Fleisig, an undergraduate studying astrophysics at CU Boulder, and included Ann-Marie Madigan and Alexander Zderic – an assistant professor and a graduate student at CU Boulder, respectively.

Artist’s conception of Sedna, a dwarf planet in the Solar System that only gets within 76 astronomical units (AUs) of our Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the sake of their study, the team focused on icy bodies like Sedna, a minor planet that orbits the Sun at a distance ranging from 76 AU at perihelion to 936 AU at aphelion. Along with a handful of other objects at this distance, such as Eris, Sedna appears to be separated from the rest of the Solar System – something which astronomers have struggled to explain ever since it was discovered.

Sedna was also discovered by Michael Brown who, along with Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory and David Rabinowitz of Yale University, spotted it on November 14th, 2003, while conducting a survey of the Kuiper Belt. In addition to orbiting our Sun with a period of over 11,000 years, this minor planet and other detached objects has a huge, elliptical orbit.

What’s more, this orbit does not take them Sedna or these other objects anywhere near to Neptune or any other gas giant. Unlike Pluto and other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), it is therefore a mystery how they achieved their current orbits. The possible existence of a as-yet-undiscovered planet (Planet 9/Planet X), which would be about 10 times the size of Earth, is one hypothetical explanation.

After years of searching for this planet and attempting to determine where its orbit would take it, astronomers have yet to find Planet 9/Planet X. However, as Prof. Madigan explained in a recent CU Boulder press release, there is another possible explanation for the gravitational weirdness going on out there:

“There are so many of these bodies out there. What does their collective gravity do? We can solve a lot of these problems by just taking into account that question… Once you get further away from Neptune, things don’t make any sense, which is really exciting.”

While Madigan and her team did not originally set out to find another explanation for the orbits of “detached objects”, they ended up pursuing the possibility thanks to Jacob Fleisig’s computer modelling. While developing simulations to explore the dynamics of the detached objects, he noticed something very interesting about the region of space they occupy.

Having calculated the orbits of icy objects beyond Neptune, Fleisig and the rest of the team noticed that different objects behave much like the different hands on a clock. Whereas asteroids move like the minute hand (relatively fast and in tandem), larger objects like Sedna move more slowly like the hour hand. Eventually, the hands intersect.  As Fleisig explained:

“You see a pileup of the orbits of smaller objects to one side of the sun. These orbits crash into the bigger body, and what happens is those interactions will change its orbit from an oval shape to a more circular shape.”

What Fleisig’s computer model showed was that Sedna’s orbit goes from normal to detached as a result of those small-scale interactions. It also showed that the larger the detached object, the farther it gets away from the Sun – something which agrees with previous research and observations. In addition to explaining why Sedna and similar bodies behave the way they do, these findings may provide clues to another major event in Earth’s history.

Artistic rendition of the Chicxulub impactor striking ancient Earth, which is believed to have caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Credit: NASA

This would be what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Astronomers have understood for a long time that the dynamics of the outer Solar System often end up sending comets towards the inner Solar System on a predictable timescale. This is the result of icy objects interacting with each other, which causes their orbits to tighten and widen in a repeating cycle.

And while the team is not able to say that this pattern was responsible for the impact that caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (which resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago), it is a fascinating possibility. In the meantime, the research has shown just how fascinating the outer Solar System is, and how much remains to be learned about it.

“The picture we draw of the outer solar system in textbooks may have to change,” said Madigan. “There’s a lot more stuff out there than we once thought, which is really cool.”

The research was made possible thanks to the support of the NASA Solar System Workings and the Rocky Mountain Advanced Computing Consortium Summit Supercomputer.

Further Reading: University of Colorado Boulder