Is There Really a Planet X?

Have you heard there’s a giant planet in the Solar System headed straight towards Earth?

At some point in the next few months or years, this thing is going to crash into Earth or flip our poles, or push us out of our orbit, or some other horrible civilization destroying disaster.

Are these rumours true?

Is there a Planet X on a collision course with Earth?

Unlike some of the answers science gives us, where we need to give a vague and nuanced answers, like yes AND no, or Maybe, well, it depends…

I’m glad to give a straight answer: No.

Any large object moving towards the inner Solar System would be one of the brightest objects in the night sky. It would mess up the orbits of the other planets and asteroids that astronomers carefully observe every night.

There are millions of amateur astronomers taking high quality images of the night sky. If something was out there, they’d see it.

These rumours have been popping up on the internet for more than a decade now, and I’m sure we’ll still be debunking them decades from now.

What people are calling Planet X, or Nibiru, or Wormwood, or whatever doesn’t exist. But is it possible that there are large, undiscovered objects out in the furthest reaches of Solar System?

Sure.

Astronomers have been searching for Planet X for more than a hundred years. In the 1840s, the French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier calculated that another large planet must be perturbing the orbit of Uranus. He predicted the location where this planet would be, and then German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle used those coordinates to discover Neptune right where Le Verrier predicted.

The famed astronomer Percival Lowell died searching for the next planet in the Solar System, but he made a few calculations about where it might be found.

A young Clyde Tombaugh with one of his famous homemade telescopes. (Credit : NASA/GSFC).
A young Clyde Tombaugh with one of his famous homemade telescopes. (Credit : NASA/GSFC).
And in 1930, Clyde William Tombaugh successfully discovered Pluto in one of the locations predicted by Lowell.

Astronomers continued searching for additional large objects, but it wasn’t until 2005 that another object the size of Pluto was finally discovered by Mike Brown and his team from Caltech: Eris. Brown and his team also turned up several other large icy objects in the Kuiper Belt; many of which have been designated dwarf planets.

We haven’t discovered any other large objects yet, but there might be clues that they’re out there.

In 2012, the Brazilian astronomer Rodney Gomes calculated the orbits of objects in the Kuiper Belt and found irregularities in the orbits of 6 objects. This suggests that a larger object is further out, tugging at their orbits. It could be a Mars-sized object 8.5 billion km away, or a Neptune-sized object 225 billion km away.

A false-color, visible-light image of Comet ISON taken with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
A false-color, visible-light image of Comet ISON taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
There’s another region at the edge of the Solar System called the Oort Cloud. This is the source of the long-period comets that occasionally visit the inner Solar System. It’s possible that large planets are perturbing the orbits of comets with their gravity, nudging these comets in our direction.

So, feel free to ignore every single scary video and website that says an encounter with Planet X is coming.

And use that time you saved from worrying, and use it to appreciate the amazing discoveries being made in space and astronomy every day.

NASA’s Final 2012 Doomsday Debunking Video (We Hope)


Despite countless articles published over the course of several years to the contrary, despite videos and interviews with some of the world’s most prominent and well-respected astronomers, despite new archaeological discoveries and well-established knowledge, despite the laws of physics, for crying out loud (and, curiously enough, even despite the fact that parts of the world are, at the time of this writing, already well within the supposed “doomsday” with nary a Nibiru in sight) many people are still wondering what will happen on the much-touted December 21, 2012, aka “doomsday” per the end of the 13th b’ak’tun of the Maya calendar (or something like that.) After all, if it’s trending on Twitter it must be important, right?

Well, yes and no. No because there’s not a shred of truth to the whole thing (except for the fact that there were Maya and they had a calendar) but yes because many people are actually very concerned about… well, I guess about the safety of the world. (Don’t believe me? Read this.) Which is in itself reasonable, I suppose. So in the nature of public outreach and the attempt to spread real information to combat the other kind, NASA’s has released yet one more video interview with astrophysicist David Morrison, director of the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute. I don’t know if David could tell you how to replace a broken head gasket or perform an appendectomy, but when it comes to space he knows his stuff. So check out the video, be not alarmed, and pass it on to anyone you know who might still be feeling the b’ak’tun blues.

See you on the 22nd! (Still skeptical? Check out some other videos and links below.)

Read more: How Have the 2012 Doomsday Myths Become Part of Our Accepted Lexicon?

And here’s a “reality check” from JPL’s Don Yeomans, an expert on near-Earth objects and asteroids:

Read more: No Doom in 2012: Stop the Insanity!

So rest assured, the only astronomical event expected for the 21st is the winter solstice (summer in the south), which happens every year on every planet with an axial tilt with no ill effects (besides perhaps a sudden sinking realization that you’re nowhere near done with your holiday shopping.) Happy solstice!

Earth Threatened By Glowing Green Asteroid?

Killer asteroid coming for the Earth?

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The Daily Mail is reporting that a youtube user has found a strange object while poking around in Google Sky. It looks suspiciously like a glowing green asteroid and he claims it’s heading right for us. But before we call in the experts, let’s do a little bit of critical analysis on our own.

First off, the image raises alarm bells because of the apparent size of the object. Without knowing how far away it may be, it’s hard to say how large it would actually be, but we can put some limits on it. I looked up the region on Aladin and the angular distance between the two stars just to the upper right of the object is 1 arc minute. The object seems to be about that size, so we can use that as a baseline.

Assuming that the object was somewhere in the vicinity of Pluto (roughly 6 billion km), doing a bit of quick geometry means the object would be somewhere around 580,000 km. To put that in context, that’s about 40% the diameter of the Sun. If that were the case, this wouldn’t be an asteroid, it would be a small star. The funny thing about stars is that they tend to be somewhat bright and a lot more round. So that rules out that extreme.

But what if it were very close? At the distance of the moon, that would mean the object would be about 300 km in diameter which would make this thing slightly smaller than the largest asteroid, Ceres. However, this raises another issue: With that much mass, the object should still be pretty round. Additionally, with such a size and distance, it would be very bright. And it’s not.

2011 MD on Monday, June 27, 2011 at 09:30 UTC with RGB filter. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Giovanni Sostero at the Faulkes Telescope South.
Even closer we run into additional issues. Astronomical images aren’t taken as a single color image. Images like this are taken in 3 filters (RGB) and then combined to make a color image. If the object is nearby, it moves from image to image, showing up in the final image in 3 places, each as a different color. For example, here’s an image of 2011 MD illustrating the effect. Given the object in question doesn’t have this tri-color separation going on, it can’t be nearby.

So this has pretty much ruled out anything anywhere in our solar system. If it’s close, it should have color issues and be bright. If it’s far, it’s too massive to have been missed. Outside of our solar system and it wouldn’t have any apparent motion and should be visible in other images. And it’s not.

In fact, searching the various databases from which Google Sky draws its data (SDSS, DSS, HST, IRAS, and WMAP), the killer asteroid doesn’t appear at all. Thus, it would seem that this object is nothing more than a technical glitch introduced by Google’s stitching together of images. Sorry conspiracy theorists. No Planet X or Nibiru out there this time!

Still Concerned About 2012?

Don’t be.

Don Yeomans, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, was kind enough to address some common questions regarding 2012, such as the much-misunderstood Mayan “long-count” calendar, Nibiru, pole-reversal and other such purported “doomsday” devices. Check it out.

Still set on the world ending come Dec. 21?

Back off, man. Don’s a scientist.

Podcast: Planet X

Astronomers have been searching for the mysterious Planet X for hundreds of years. It was the search for a theoretical planet beyond Uranus that turned up Neptune, and then again for Pluto. And even now there are some astronomers who think there’s a more distant planet out there. Oh, and there are a bunch of pseudoscience cranks trying to freak people out about the end of the world. Don’t worry, we’ll make time for them too, but first let’s start with some real science.

Click here to download the episode.

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Planet X show notes and transcript.