One of the biggest new mysteries in our Solar System is the purported presence of a large and distant “Planet Nine,” traveling around the Sun in a twenty-thousand-year orbit far beyond Pluto. Although this far-flung world’s existence has yet to actually be confirmed (or even directly detected) some scientists are suggesting it might have originally been an exoplanet around a neighboring star, pilfered by our Sun during its impudent adolescence.
Planet Nine, the massive orb proposed to explain the clustered orbits of a half dozen remote Kuiper Belt asteroids, may have a darker side. Periodic mass extinctions on Earth, as indicated in the global fossil record, could be linked to the hypothetical planet according to research published by Daniel Whitmire, a retired professor of astrophysics and faculty member of the University of Arkansas Department of Mathematical Sciences.
Planet Nine is estimated to be 10 times more massive than Earth and currently orbiting about 1,000 times farther away from the Sun. Astronomers have been searching for a potential large planet — for years called “Planet X” — that might be implicated in a handful of major mass extinctions over the past 500 million years. During those times, between 50 and more than 90% of species on Earth perished in a geological heartbeat. The worst, dubbed the Permian-Triassic event or the Great Dying, occurred 250 million years ago and saw the disappearance of more than 90% of the planet’s life in a geological heartbeat.
Whitmire and his colleague, John Matese, first published research on the connection between Planet X and mass extinctions in the journal Nature in 1985 while working as astrophysicists at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. They proposed that perturbations from a 10th planet (Pluto was considered a planet back then) could fling a shower of comets from the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune in Earth’s direction every 28 million years in sync with recorded mass extinctions.
Two other ideas also proposed at the time they wrote their paper — a sister star to the Sun and vertical oscillations of the Sun as it orbits the galaxy — have since been ruled out because the timing is inconsistent with the extinction record. Only Planet X remained as a viable theory, and it’s now gaining renewed attention.
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Whitmire and Matese proposed that as Planet X orbits the Sun, its tilted orbit slowly rotates, causing the location of its perihelion (closest point to the Sun) to slowly precess or shift position along its orbit instead of remaining in the same place. Every planet precesses, so no surprises here.
But location can make a huge difference. The team proposed that Planet X’s slow orbital gyration directs it into the Kuiper Belt approximately every 27 million years, knocking comets into the inner Solar System. The dislodged comets not only smash into the Earth, they also vaporize and break apart in the inner Solar System as they get nearer to the Sun, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth. Add it up, and you have a recipe for cyclic destruction.
One thing to keep in mind is that their research led them to conclude that Planet X was only 5 times as massive as Earth and 100 times farther from the Sun. This doesn’t jive with the size and mass particulars for Planet Nine inferred by researchers Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown at Caltech earlier this year, but until someone tracks the real planet down, there’s room for argument.
Comet and asteroid showers are often cited as possible bad guys in extinction episodes. And why not? We have hard evidence of the asteroid impact that sealed the dinosaurs’s fate 65 million years ago and have seen some six impacts at Jupiter since 1994. It’s cosmic billiards out there folks, and the game’s not over.
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Last month, planetary scientists Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin of the California Institute of Technology found evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer Solar System. Nicknamed Planet Nine, it’s estimated to be 10 times more massive than Earth with a diameter as large as 16,000 miles (25,750 km). The putative planet orbits about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than Neptune or some 56 billion miles away; at that tremendous distance it would take between 10,000 and 20,000 years to complete one orbit around the Sun.
Planet Nine’s existence is inferred through mathematical modeling and computer simulations based on the clustering of six remote asteroids in the Kuiper Belt, a vast repository of icy asteroids and comets beyond Neptune. Brown and Batyginsay there’s only a 0.007% chance or about 1 in 15,000 that the clustering could be a coincidence.
All well and good. But with such an enormous orbit, astronomers face the daunting task of searching vast swaths of space for this needle in a haystack. Where to begin? A study done by a team of French scientists may help narrow the search. In a recent paper appearing in Astronomy and Astrophysics, astronomer Agnes Fienga and colleagues looked at what effect a large Kuiper Belt planet would have on the orbits of other planets in the Solar System, focusing their study on Saturn. Thanks to NASA’s Cassini orbiter, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, we can precisely calculate Saturn’s position along its orbit.
Based on the planet’s “residuals”, the difference between the calculated position of Saturn versus what was actually observed, the team was able to exclude two sections of its potential orbit and home in on “probable” swath and a much larger “possible” section of the orbit. The process may sound familiar, since it was the one used to discover another planet more than 150 years ago — Neptune. Back then, irregularities (residuals) in the motion of Uranus led astronomers in 1847 to predict a more distant 8th planet as the cause. On September 24, 1846, Johann Galle discovered Neptune only 1° from its position predicted by French mathematician Urbain LeVerrier.
While the current solution for Planet Nine doesn’t come anywhere near as close, it’s a step in the right direction.
A fine sight greets early risers this week into the month of February, as all five naked eye planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter ring the sky from horizon to horizon.
Though not a true planetary alignment as extolled by many websites, this is a great chance to see all five classical planets above the horizon at once… or seven, if you count the waning gibbous Moon and the rising Sun, as the ancients did as part of their geocentric, Earth-entered universe. You can kinda see how they got there, as the very heavens themselves seemed to whorl about the cradle of earthly human affairs. Continue reading “And Mercury Makes Five: See All Naked Eye Planets in the Sky at Once”
The astronomer known worldwide for vigorously promoting the demotion of Pluto from its decades long perch as the 9th Planet, has now found theoretical evidence for a new and very distant gas giant planet lurking way beyond Pluto out to the far reaches of our solar system.
In an obvious reference to the planethood controversy, the proposed new planet is nicknamed ‘Planet Nine’ and its absolutely huge! Continue reading “Astronomers Find Theoretical Evidence for Distant Gas Giant Planet in Our Solar System”