Kuiper Belt Objects Point The Way To Planet 9

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

On January 20th, 2016, researchers Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown of Caltech announced that they had found evidence that hinted at the existence of a massive planet at the edge of the Solar System. Based on mathematical modeling and computer simulations, they predicted that this planet would be a super-Earth, two to four times Earth’s size and 10 times as massive. They also estimated that, given its distance and highly elliptical orbit, it would take 10,000 – 20,000 years to orbit the Sun.

Since that time, many researchers have responded with their own studies about the possible existence of this mysterious “Planet 9”. One of the latest comes from the University of Arizona, where a research team from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory have indicated that the extreme eccentricity of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) might indicate that they crossed paths with a massive planet in the past.

For some time now, it has been understood that there are a few known KBOs who’s dynamics are different than those of other belt objects. Whereas most are significantly controlled by the gravity of the gas giants planets in their current orbits (particularly Neptune), certain members of the scattered disk population of the Kuiper Belt have unusually closely-spaced orbits.

The six most distant known objects in the solar system with orbits exclusively beyond Neptune (magenta), including Sedna (dark magenta), all mysteriously line up in a single direction. Also, when viewed in three dimensions, they tilt nearly identically away from the plane of the solar system. Another population of Kuiper belt objects (cyan) are forced into orbits that are perpendicular to the plane of the solar system and clustered in orientation. Batygin and Brown show that a planet with 10 times the mass of the earth in a distant eccentric orbit (orange) anti-aligned with the magenta orbits and perpendicular to the cyan orbits is required to maintain this configuration. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
The orbits of Neptune (magenta), Sedna (dark magenta), a series of Kuiper belt objects (cyan), and the hypothetical Planet 9 (orange). Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

When Batygin and Brown first announced their findings back in January, they indicated that these objects instead appeared to be highly clustered with respect to their perihelion positions and orbital planes. What’s more, their calculation showed that the odds of this being a chance occurrence were extremely low (they calculated a probability of 0.007%).

Instead, they theorized that it was a distant eccentric planet that was responsible for maintaining the orbits of these KBOs. In order to do this, the planet in question would have to be over ten times as massive as Earth, and have an orbit that lay roughly on the same plane (but with a perihelion oriented 180° away from those of the KBOs).

Such a planet not only offered an explanation for the presence of high-perihelion Sedna-like objects – i.e. planetoids that have extremely eccentric orbits around the Sun. It would also help to explain where distant and highly inclined objects in the outer Solar System come from, since their origins have been unclear up until this point.

In a paper titled “Coralling a distant planet with extreme resonant Kuiper belt objects“, the University of Arizona research team – which included Professor Renu Malhotra, Dr. Kathryn Volk, and Xianyu Wang – looked at things from another angle. If in fact Planet 9 were crossing paths with certain high-eccentricity KBOs, they reasoned, it was a good bet that its orbit was in resonance with these objects.

Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

To break it down, small bodies are ejected  from the Solar System all the time due to encounters with larger objects that perturb their orbits. In order to avoid being ejected, smaller bodies need to be protected by orbital resonances. While the smaller and larger objects may pass within each others’ orbital path, they are never close enough that they would able to exert a significant influence on each other.

This is how Pluto has remained a part of the Solar System, despite having an eccentric orbit that periodically cross Neptune’s path. Though Neptune and Pluto cross each others orbit, they are never close enough to each other that Neptune’s influence would force Pluto out of our Solar System. Using this same reasoning, they hypothesized that the KBOs examined by Batygin and Brown might be in an orbital resonance with the Planet 9.

As Dr.  Malhotra, Volk and Wang told Universe Today via email:

“The extreme Kuiper belt objects we investigate in our paper are distinct from the others because they all have very distant, very elliptical orbits, but their closest approach to the Sun isn’t really close enough for them to meaningfully interact with Neptune. So we have these six observed objects whose orbits are currently fairly unaffected by the known planets in our Solar System. But if there’s another, as yet unobserved planet located a few hundred AU from the Sun, these six objects would be affected by that planet.”

After examining the orbital periods of these six KBOs – Sedna, 2010 GB174, 2004 VN112, 2012 VP113, and 2013 GP136 – they concluded that a hypothetical planet with an orbital period of about 17,117 years (or a semimajor axis of about 665 AU), would have the necessary period ratios with these four objects. This would fall within the parameters estimated by Batygin and Brown for the planet’s orbital period (10,000 – 20,000 years).

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
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

Their analysis also offered suggestions as to what kind of resonance the planet has with the KBOs in question. Whereas Sedna’s orbital period would have a 3:2 resonance with the planet, 2010 GB174 would be in a 5:2 resonance, 2994 VN112 in a 3:1, 2004 VP113 in 4:1, and 2013 GP136 in 9:1. These sort of resonances are simply not likely without the presence of a larger planet.

“For a resonance to be dynamically meaningful in the outer Solar System, you need one of the objects to have enough mass to have a reasonably strong gravitational effect on the other,” said the research team. “The extreme Kuiper belt objects aren’t really massive enough to be in resonances with each other, but the fact that their orbital periods fall along simple ratios might mean that they each are in resonance with a massive, unseen object.”

But what is perhaps most exciting is that their findings could help to narrow the range of Planet 9’s possible location. Since each orbital resonance provides a geometric relationship between the bodies involved, the resonant configurations of these KBOs can help point astronomers to the right spot in our Solar System to find it.

But of course, Malhotra and her colleagues freely admit that several unknowns remain, and further observation and study is necessary before Planet 9 can be confirmed:

“There are a lot of uncertainties here. The orbits of these extreme Kuiper belt objects are not very well known because they move very slowly on the sky and we’ve only observed very small portions of their orbital motion. So their orbital periods might differ from the current estimates, which could make some of them not resonant with the hypothetical planet. It could also just be chance that the orbital periods of the objects are related; we haven’t observed very many of these types of objects, so we have a limited set of data to work with.”

Based on a careful study of Saturn's orbit and using mathematical models, French scientists were able to whittle down the search region for Planet Nine to "possible" and "probable" zones. Source: CNRS, Cote d'Azur and Paris observatories. Credit:
Estimates of Planet Nine’s “possible” and “probable” zones. by French scientists based on a careful study of Saturn’s orbit and using mathematical models. Source: CNRS, Cote d’Azur and Paris observatories. Credit: Bob King

Ultimately, astronomers and the rest of us will simply have to wait on further observations and calculations. But in the meantime, I think we can all agree that the possibility of a 9th Planet is certainly an intriguing one! For those who grew up thinking that the Solar System had nine planets, these past few years (where Pluto was demoted and that number fell to eight) have been hard to swallow.

But with the possible confirmation of this Super-Earth at the outer edge of the Solar System, that number could be pushed back up to nine soon enough!

Further Reading: arXiv.org

Astronomers Find Theoretical Evidence for Distant Gas Giant Planet in Our Solar System

Artistic rendering shows the distant view from theoretical Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side.  Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
Artistic rendering shows the distant view from theoretical Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

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”

10 Interesting Facts About Neptune

Neptune is a truly fascinating world. But as it is, there is much that people don’t know about it. Perhaps it is because Neptune is the most distant planet from our Sun, or because so few exploratory missions have ventured that far out into our Solar System. But regardless of the reason, Neptune is a gas (and ice) giant that is full of wonder!

Below, we have compiled a list of 10 interesting facts about this planet. Some of them, you might already know. But others are sure to surprise and maybe even astound you. Enjoy!

Continue reading “10 Interesting Facts About Neptune”

New Dwarf Planet is Most Distant Object Yet Observed in our Solar System

It has been estimated that there may be hundreds of dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt and Oort Cloud of the outer Solar System. So far we’ve found – and actually seen – just a few. This past week, one more dwarf planet was added to the list and comes in at the most distant object ever seen in the Solar System.

This newly found world, initially named V774104, is about 15.4 billion kilometers from the Sun. At 103 AU, it is three times further from the Sun than Pluto, and is more distant than the previous record holder, Eris, which lies at 97 AU.

The discovery of V774104 was announced by one of the astronomers who found the object, Scott Sheppard, from the Carnegie Institution for Science, at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences fall meeting last week. Sheppard, along with Chad Trujillo and David Tholen used Japan’s 8-meter Subaru Telescope in Hawaii to make the find.

Astronomers say this newly spotted dwarf planet shows the depths of our Solar System.

“The discovery of V774104 is more proof that the Solar System is bigger than we thought,” said astronomer Joseph Burns from Cornell University, who was not associated with the discovery. “We need a little more time to pin down the orbit and determine the object’s exact size, but it must be big to see it at this distance.”

The size of V774104 is currently estimated to be between 500 and 1000 kilometers in diameter, which is less than half Pluto’s size.

While the size of the object is of some interest to astronomers who are searching for KBOs, even more interesting is pinning down its orbit. With its recent discovery, the orbit of V774104 has yet to be tracked for long periods of time.

If the orbit of V774104 comes closer to the Sun, such as between 30 to 50 AU, then it would be considered an icy Kuiper Belt objects which are more common among bodies like this found so far. Their orbits are more elongated because they fall under the gravitational influence of Neptune.

Of even more interest are what Sheppard called “inner Oort Cloud objects,” (also called “sednoids”). Theses bodies exist in a part of the Solar System that astronomers used to think was fairy empty. Of the two previously observed objects in this class — Sedna and 2012 VP113. — their orbits never come closer to the Sun than 50 AU, and they have a semi-major axis greater than 150 AU. The eccentric orbits of these objects have yet to be explained.

Colin Johnston from the Armagh Planetarium clarifies:

This means at their closest to the Sun they are still beyond the Kuiper Belt which lies 30-50 au from the Sun. Only two other objects in this category are known: 90377 Sedna and 2012 VP113.

They intrigue astronomers as they inhabit what was expected to be a largely empty region between the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, the Solar System’s yet to observed reservoir of comets. As well, the current highly elliptical orbits of Sednoids cannot be their original orbits, the chance of smaller bodies in such eccentric paths accreting into objects hundreds of kilometres across is fantastically low. Sednoids must have originally formed in relatively circular orbits, possibly in the Oort Cloud.

“Non-eccentric orbits seem to be the anomaly here,” Burns told Universe Today.

So, this likely means that something other than the Sun is responsible for influencing the erratic orbits of such small objects like V774104. One theory is that there might be a large planet at the outer reaches of the Solar System influencing the orbits of these distant objects.

Of course, among some crowds that brings up the hypothetical Planet X. But Burns was quick to dismiss that idea.

“While we certainly don’t understand well these objects, we may want to scatter off an object like Planet X,” he said via email.

At the AAS meeting last week, Sheppard said the likely alternative is that the orbits of these objects might reflect the primordial conditions of the Solar System, which formed more than 4.5 billion years ago. This makes them even more enticing for study, and Sheppard and his team will be keeping a close eye on V774104 to try and learn more. Nature News reported that the team plans to look for it again this week using the Magellan Telescopes in Chile, and then again in a year, to calculate its orbit and determine whether if it is an inner Oort cloud resident or an icy Kuiper Belt object.

Further reading: Nature, Armagh Planetarium,Centauri Dreams, Science.

The (Possible) Dwarf Planet 2007 OR10

Over the course of the past decade, more and more objects have been discovered within the Trans-Neptunian region. With every new find, we have learned more about the history of our Solar System and the mysteries it holds. At the same time, these finds have forced astronomers to reexamine astronomical conventions that have been in place for decades.

Consider 2007 OR10, a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) located within the scattered disc that at one time went by the nicknames of “the seventh dwarf” and “Snow White”. Approximately the same size as Haumea, it is believed to be a dwarf planet, and is currently the largest object in the Solar System that does not have a name.

Discovery and Naming:

2007 OR10 was discovered in 2007 by Meg Schwamb, a PhD candidate at Caltech and a graduate student of Michael Brown, while working out of the Palomar Observatory. The object was colloquially referred to as the “seventh dwarf” (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) since it was the seventh object to be discovered by Brown’s team (after Quaoar in 2002, Sedna in 2003, Haumea and Orcus in 2004, and Makemake and Eris in 2005).

Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon
Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon

At the time of its discovery, the object appeared to be very large and very white, which led to Brown giving it the other nickname of “Snow White”. However, subsequent observation has revealed that the planet is actually one of the reddest in the Kuiper Belt, comparable only to Haumea. As a result, the nickname was dropped and the object is still designated as 2007 OR10.

The discovery of 2007 OR10 would not be formally announced until January 7th, 2009.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

A study published in 2011 by Brown – in collaboration with A.J. Burgasser (University of California San Diego) and W.C. Fraser (MIT) – 2007 OR10’s diameter was estimated to be between 1000-1500 km. These estimates were based on photometry data obtained in 2010 using the Magellan Baade Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and from spectral data obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope.

However, a survey conducted in 2012 by Pablo Santos Sanz et al. of the Trans-Neptunian region produced an estimate of 1280±210 km based on the object’s size, albedo, and thermal properties. Combined with its absolute magnitude and albedo, 2007 OR10 is the largest unnamed object and the fifth brightest TNO in the Solar System. No estimates of its mass have been made as of yet.

2007 OR10 also has a highly eccentric orbit (0.5058) with an inclination of 30.9376°. What this means is that at perihelion, it is roughly 33 AU (4.9 x 109 km/30.67 x 109 mi) from our Sun while at aphelion, it is as distant as 100.66 AU (1.5 x 1010 km/9.36 x 1010 mi). It also has an orbital period of 546.6 years, which means that the last time it was at perihelion was 1857 and it won’t reach aphelion until 2130. As such, it is currently the second-farthest known large body in the Solar System, and  will be farther out than both Sedna and Eris by 2045.

Composition:

According to the spectral data obtained by Brown, Burgasser and Fraser, 2007 OR10 shows infrared signatures for both water ice and methane, which indicates that it is likely similar in composition to Quaoar. Concurrent with this, the reddish appearance of 2007 OR10 is believed to be due to presence of tholins in the surface ice, which are caused by the irradiation of methane by ultraviolet radiation.

The presence of red methane frost on the surfaces of both 2007 OR10 and Quaoar is also seen as an indication of the possible existence of a tenuous methane atmosphere, which would slowly evaporate into space when the objects are closer to the Sun. Although 2007 OR10 comes closer to the Sun than Quaoar, and is thus warm enough that a methane atmosphere should evaporate, its larger mass makes retention of an atmosphere just possible.

Also, the presence of water ice on the surface is believed to imply that the object underwent a brief period of cryovolcanism in its distant past. According to Brown, this period would have been responsible not only for water ice freezing on the surface, but for the creation of an atmosphere that included nitrogen and carbon monoxide. These would have been depleted rather quickly, and a tenuous atmosphere of methane would be all that remains today.

However, more data is required before astronomers can say for sure whether or not 2007 OR10 has an atmosphere, a history of cryovolcanism, and what its interior looks like. Like other KBOs, it is possible that it is differentiated between a mantle of ices and a rocky core. Assuming that there is sufficient antifreeze, or due to the decay of radioactive elements, there may even be a liquid-water ocean at the core-mantle boundary.

Classification:

Though it is too difficult to resolve 2007 OR10’s size based on direct observation, based on calculations of 2007 OR10’s albedo and absolute magnitude, many astronomers believe it to be of sufficient size to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. As Brown stated in 2011, 2007 OR10 “must be a dwarf planet even if predominantly rocky”, which is based on a minimum possible diameter of 552 km and what is believed to be the conditions under which hydrostatic equilibrium occurs in cold icy-rock bodies.

That same year, Scott S. Sheppard and his team (which included Chad Trujillo) conducted a survey of bright KBOs (including 2007 OR10) using the Palomar Observatory’s 48 inch Schmidt telescope. According to their findings, they determined that “[a]ssuming moderate albedos, several of the new discoveries from this survey could be in hydrostatic equilibrium and thus could be considered dwarf planets.”

Currently, nothing is known of 2007 OR10’s mass, which is a major factor when determining if a body has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. This is due in part to there being no known satellite(s) in orbit of the object, which in turn is a major factor in determining the mass of a system. Meanwhile, the IAU has not addressed the possibility of accepting additional dwarf planets since before the discovery of 2007 OR10 was announced.

Alas, much remains to be learned about 2007 OR10. Much like it’s Trans-Neptunian neighbors and fellow KBOs, a lot will depend on future missions and observations being able to learn more about its size, mass, composition, and whether or not it has any satellites. However, given its extreme distance and fact that it is currently moving further and further away, opportunities to observe and explore it via flybys will be limited.

However, if all goes well, this potential dwarf planet could be joining the ranks of such bodies as Pluto, Eris, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake in the not-too-distant future. And with luck, it will be given a name that actually sticks!

We have many interesting articles on Dwarf Planets, the Kuiper Belt, and Plutoids here at Universe Today. Here’s Why Pluto is no longer a planet and how astronomers are predicting Two More Large Planets in the outer Solar System.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode all about Dwarf Planets titled, Episode 194: Dwarf Planets.

For more information, check out the NASA’s Solar System Overview: Dwarf Planets, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Small-Body Database, as well as Mike Browns Planets.

 

The Dwarf Planet Sedna

There has been quite a bit of buzz about dwarf planets lately. Ever since the discovery of Eris in 2005, and the debate that followed over the proper definition of the word “planet”, this term has been adopted to refer to planets beyond Neptune that rival Pluto in size. Needless to say, it has been a controversial subject, and one which is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

In the meantime, the category has been used tentatively to describe many Trans-Neptunian objects that were discovered before or since the discovery of Eris. Sedna, which was discovered in the outer reaches of the Solar System in 2003, is most likely a dwarf planet. And as the furthest known object from the Sun, and located within the hypothetical Oort Cloud, it is quite the fascinating find.

Discovery and Naming:

Much like Eris, Haumea and Makemake, Sedna was co-discovered by Mike Brown of Caltech, with assistance from Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory, and David Rabinowitz of Yale University on November 14th, 2003. Initially designated as 2003 VB12, the discovery was part of a survey that commenced in 2001 using the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California.

Observations at the time indicated the presence of an object at a distance of approximately 100 AU from the Sun. Follow-up observations made in November and December of 2003 by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii revealed that the object was moving along a distant highly eccentric orbit.

Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon
Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon

It was later learned that the object had been previously observed by the Samual Oschin telescope as well as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) consortium. Comparisons with these previous observations have since allowed for a more precise calculation of Sedna’s orbit and orbital arc.

According to Mike Brown’s website, the planet was named Sedna after the Inuit Goddess of the sea. According to legend, Sedna was once mortal but became immortal after drowning in the Arctic Ocean, where she now resides and protects all the creatures of the sea. This name seemed appropriate to Brown and his team because Sedna is currently the farthest (and hence coldest) object from the Sun.

The team made the name public before the object had been officially numbered; and while this represented a breach in IAU protocol, no objections were raised. In 2004, the IAU’s Committee on Small Body Nomenclature formally accepted the name.

Classification:

Astronomers remain somewhat divided when it comes to Sedna’s proper classification. On the one hand, its discovery resurrected the question of which astronomical objects should be considered planets and which ones could not. Under the IAU’s definition of a planet, which was adopted on August 24th, 2006 (in response to the discovery of Eris), a planet needs to have cleared its orbit. Hence, Sedna does not qualify.

However, to be a dwarf planet, a celestial body must be in hydrostatic equilibrium – meaning that it is symmetrically rounded into a spheroid or ellipsoid shape. With a surface albedo of 0.32 ± 0.06 – and an estimated diameter of between 915 and 1800 km (compared to Pluto’s 1186 km) – Sedna is bright enough, and also large enough, to be spheroid in shape.

Therefore, Sedna is believed by many astronomers to be a dwarf planet, and is often referred to confidently as such. One reason why astronomers are reluctant to definitively place it in that category is because it is so far away that it is difficult to observe.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

In 2004, Mike Brown and his team placed an upper limit of 1,800 km on its diameter, but by 2007 this was revised downward to less than 1,600 km after observations were made by the Spitzer Space Telescope. In 2012, measurements from the Herschel Space Observatory suggested that Sedna’s diameter was between 915 and 1075 km, which would make it smaller than Pluto’s moon Charon.

Because Sedna has no known moons, determining its mass is currently impossible without sending a space probe. Nevertheless, many astronomers think that Sedna is the fifth largest trans-Neptunian object (TNO) and dwarf planet – after Eris, Pluto, Makemake, and Haumea, respectively.

Sedna has a highly elliptical orbit around the Sun, which means it ranges in distance from 76 astronomical units (AU) at perihelion (114 billion km/71 billion mi) to 936 AU (140 billion km/87 billion mi) at aphelion.

Sedna's orbit, compared to other bodies in the Solar System and the Kuiper Belt. Credit: web.gps.caltech.edu
Sedna’s orbit, compared to other bodies in the Solar System, the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. Credit: web.gps.caltech.edu

Estimations on how long it takes Sedna to orbit the Sun vary, although it is known to be more than 10,000 years. Some astronomers calculate the orbital period could be as long as 12,000 years. Although astronomers believed at first that Sedna had a satellite, they have not been able to prove it.

Composition:

At the time of its discovery, Sedna was the intrinsically brightest object found in the Solar System since Pluto in 1930. In terms of color, Sedna appears to be almost as red as Mars, which some astronomers believe is caused by hydrocarbon or tholin.  Its surface is also rather homogeneous in terms of color and spectrum, which may the result of Sedna’s distance from the Sun.

Unlike planets in the Inner Solar System, Sedna experiences very few surface impacts from meteors or stray objects. As a result, it does not have as many exposed bright patches of fresh icy material. Sedna, and the entire Oort Cloud, is freezing at temperatures below 33 Kelvin (-240.2°C).

Models have been constructed of Sedna that place an upper limit of 60% for methane ice and 70% for water ice. This is consistent with the existence of tholins on it’s surface, since they are produced by the irradiation of methane. Meanwhile, M. Antonietta Barucci and colleagues compared Sedna’s spectrum to that of Triton and came up with a model that included 24% Triton-type tholins, 7% amorphous carbon, 10% nitrogen, 26% methanol and 33% methane.

Planetoid Sedna
Artist’s concept of the surface of Sedna. Credit: NASA/ESA/Adolf Schaller

The presence of nitrogen on the surface suggests the possibility that, at least for a short time, Sedna may have a tenuous atmosphere. During a 200-year period near perihelion, the maximum temperature on Sedna would likely exceed 35.6 K (-237.6 °C), which would be just warm enough for some of the nitrogen ice to sublimate. Models of internal heating via radioactive decay suggest that, like many bodies in the Outer Solar System, Sedna might be capable of supporting a subsurface ocean of liquid water.

Origin:

When he and his colleagues first observed Sedna, they claimed that it was part of the Oort Cloud – the hypothetical cloud of comets believed to exist a light-year’s distance from the Sun. This was based on the fact that Sedna’s perihelion (76 AUs) made it too distant to be scattered by the gravitational influence of Neptune.

Because it was also closer to the Sun than was expected from on Oort cloud object, and has an inclination in line with the planets and Kuiper Belt, they described it as being an “inner Oort Cloud object”. Brown and his colleagues have proposed that Sedna’s orbit is best explained by the Sun having formed in an open cluster of several stars that gradually disassociated over time.

In this scenario, Sedna was lifted into its current orbit by a star that was part of this cluster rather than it having been formed in its current location. This hypothesis has also been confirmed by computer simulations that suggest that multiple close passes by young stars in such a cluster would pull many objects into Sedna-like orbits.

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

On the other hand, if Sedna formed in its current location, then it would mean that the Sun’s original protoplanetary disc would have extended farther than previously expected – approximately 75 AUs into space. Also, Sedna’s initial orbit would have been approximately circular, otherwise its formation by the accretion of smaller bodies into a whole would not have been possible.

Therefore, it must have been tugged into its current eccentric orbit by a gravitational interaction with another body – which could have been another planet in the Kuiper Belt, a passing star, or one of the young stars embedded with the Sun in the stellar cluster in which it formed.

Another possibility is the Sedna’s orbit is the result of influence by a large binary companion thousands of AU distant from our Sun. One such hypothetical companion is Nemesis, a dim companion to the Sun. However, to date no direct evidence of Nemesis has been found, and many lines of evidence have thrown its existence into doubt.

More recently, it has also been suggested that Sedna did not originate in the Solar System, but was captured by the Sun from a passing extrasolar planetary system.

Astronomers believe that they will find more objects in the Oort Cloud in years to come, especially as ground-based and space telescopes become more advanced and sensitive. Most likely, we will also see Sedna officially christened a “dwarf planet” by the IAU. As with other astronomical bodies that have been designated as such, we can expect some controversy to follow!

Universe Today has many interesting articles on Sedna, including Sedna probably doesn’t have a moon and Dwarf Planets.

For more information, check out the story of Sedna and Sedna.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Pluto and the icy outer Solar System, and The Oort Cloud.

Sources:

Stealing Sedna

Turns out, our seemly placid star had a criminal youth of cosmic proportions.

A recent study out from Leiden Observatory and Cornell University may shed light on the curious case of one of the solar system’s more exotic objects: 90377 Sedna.

Distant Sedna (circled) moving against the starry background). Image credit: NASA/Hubble
Distant Sedna (circled) moving against the starry background). Image credit: NASA/Hubble

A team led by astronomer Mike Brown discovered 90377 Sedna in late 2003. Provisionally named 2003 VB12, the object later received the name Sedna from the International Astronomical Union, after the Inuit goddess of the sea.

From the start, Sedna was an odd-ball. Its 11,400 year orbit takes it from a perihelion of 76 astronomical units (for context, Neptune is an average of 30 AUs from the Sun) to an amazing 936 AUs from the Sun. (A thousand AUs is 1.6% of a light year, and 0.4% of the way to Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system). Currently at a distance of 86 AU and headed towards perihelion in 2076, we’re lucky we caught Sedna as it ‘neared’ (we use the term ‘near’ loosely in this case!) the Sun.

But this strange path makes you wonder what else is out there, and how Sedna wound up in such an eccentric orbit.

Zooming out; the inner solar system (upper left), the outer solar system (upper right), the orbit of Sedna (lower right) and the inner edge of the Oort cloud (lower left).  Image credit: NASA
Zooming out; the inner solar system (upper left), the outer solar system (upper right), the orbit of Sedna (lower right) and the inner edge of the Oort cloud (lower left). Image credit: NASA

The study, entitled How Sedna and family were captured in a close encounter with a solar sibling  looks at the possibility that Sedna may have been snatched from another star early on in our Sun’s career (of interstellar crime, perhaps?)  The team used supercomputer simulations modeling 10,000 encounters to discover which types of near stellar passages might result in an ice dwarf world in a Sedna-like orbit.

“We constrained the parent star of Sedna to have between one and two times the mass of the Sun and its closest approach to be 200-400 AUs,” Dr. Lucie Jilkova of Leiden Observatory told Universe Today. “Such a close encounter probably happened while the Sun was still a member of its birth star cluster — a family of about 1,000 stars, so called solar siblings, born at the same time relatively close together — which was about 4 billion years ago.”

Image credit:
The orbit of Sedna. (Note Neptune and Pluto towards the center) Image credit: NASA/JPL

The best fit for what we see today in the outer solar system in the case of Sedna, is a close (340 AU) passage from the Sun — that’s over 11 times Neptune’s distance — of a 1.8 solar mass star  inclined at an angle of 17-34 degrees to the ecliptic. Sedna’s current orbital inclination is 12 degrees.

Rise of the Sednitos

The paper assigns the term ‘Sednitos’ (also sometimes referred to as ‘Sednoids’) for these Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt intruders with similar characteristics to Sedna. In 2012, 2012 VP113, dubbed the ‘twin of Sedna,’ was discovered by astronomers at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in a similar looping orbit. The ‘VP’ designation earned the as yet unnamed  remote world the brief nickname ‘Biden’ after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden… hey, it was an election year.

There’s good reason to believe something(s?) out there shepherding these Senitos into a similar orbit with a comparable argument of perihelion. Researchers have suggested the existence of one or several planetary mass objects loitering out in the 200-250 AU range of the outer solar system… note that this is

a separate scientific-based discussion versus any would-be Nibiru related non-sense, don’t even get

us started…

If researchers in the study are correct, Sedna may have lots of company, with perhaps 930 planetesimals predicted in the ‘Sednito region’ of the solar system from 50 to 1,000 AUs and 430 more additional planetesimals littering the inner Oort cloud from the same early event.

“We focused on a particular example of a stellar encounter with characteristics from the ranges mentioned,” Dr. Jilkova said. “For this example, we estimated that there would be about 430 bodies similar to Sedna in the outer solar system (beyond 75 AU).”

Fun fact: One possible controversial candidate for the birth cluster of Sol and our solar system is the open cluster M67 in Cancer.  It’s an intriguing notion to try and track down the star we stole Sedna from 4 billion years ago using spectral analysis, though researchers in the study point out that the other more massive star is probably an aging white dwarf by now.

Astronomy from the surface of Sedna is mind-bending to contemplate. Currently 86 AU from the Sun and headed towards perihelion in 2076, Sol would appear only 20” across from the surface of Sedna, but would still shine at magnitude -17 to -18 near perihelion, about 40 to 100 times brighter than a Full Moon. Fast forward about 5,500 years towards aphelion, however, and the Sun would dim to a paltry magnitude -12, a full magnitude (2.5 times) dimmer than the Full Moon.

The view from Sedna looking towards the inner solar system in 2015. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software.
The view from Sedna looking towards the inner solar system in 2015. Note the five degree red field of view marker. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software.

Shining at magnitude +21 in the constellation Taurus, astronomers know little else about Sedna. Based on brightness estimates, Sedna measures about 1,000 km in diameter. It does appear to be the reddest object in the solar system, and may turn out to be the ‘red twin of Pluto’ as recently revealed by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, complete with a surface rich in tholins.

And a new generation of observatories may uncover a treasure trove of Sednitos. The European Space Agency’s Gaia astrometry mission should uncover lots of new asteroids, comets, exoplanets and distant Kuiper Belt objects as a spin-off to its primary mission. Then there’s the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, set to see first light in 2019.

“The key piece of the puzzle is to actually observe more Sedna-like objects.” Dr Jilkova said. “Currently, we know only of two such bodies. More discoveries are expected in the following years and they will shed light on the origin of Sedna and its family and the ‘criminal record’ of the Sun.”

It’s a fascinating story of interstellar whodunit for sure, as our Sun’s early days of wanton juvenile delinquency unravel before the eyes of modern day astronomical detectives.

Weekly Space Hangout – June 26, 2015: Paul Sutter, CCAPP Visiting Fellow

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: This week we welcome Paul Sutter, the CCAPP Visiting Fellow who works on the cosmic microwave background and large-scale structure.

Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – June 26, 2015: Paul Sutter, CCAPP Visiting Fellow”

Astronomers are Predicting at Least Two More Large Planets in the Solar System

Could there be another Pluto-like object out in the far reaches of the Solar System? How about two or more?

Earlier this week, we discussed a recent paper from planet-hunter Mike Brown, who said that while there aren’t likely to be any bright, easy-to-find objects, there could be dark ones “lurking far away.” Now, a group of astronomers from the UK and Spain maintain at least two planets must exist beyond Neptune and Pluto in order to explain the orbital behavior of objects that are even farther out, called extreme trans-Neptunian objects (ETNO).

The presently known largest small bodies in the Kuiper Belt are likely not to be surpassed by any future discoveries. This is the conclusion of Dr. Michael Brown, et al. (Illustration Credit: Larry McNish, Data: M.Brown)
The presently known largest small bodies in the Kuiper Belt are likely not to be surpassed by any future discoveries. This is the conclusion of Dr. Michael Brown, et al. (Illustration Credit: Larry McNish, Data: M.Brown)

We do know that Pluto shares its region Solar System with more than 1500 other tiny, icy worlds along with likely countless smaller and darker ones that have not yet been detected.

In two new paper published this week, scientists at the Complutense University of Madrid and the University of Cambridge noted that the most accepted theory of trans-Neptunian objects is that they should orbit at a distance of about 150 AU, be in an orbital plane – or inclination – similar to the planets in our Solar System, and they should be randomly distributed.

But that differs from what is actually observed. What astronomers see are groupings of objects with widely disperse distances (between 150 AU and 525 AU) and orbital inclinations that vary between 0 to 20 degrees.

“This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the ETNO,” said Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, scientist at UCM and co-author of the study, “ and we consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto.”

He added that the exact number is uncertain, but given the limited data that is available, their calculations suggest “there are at least two planets, and probably more, within the confines of our solar system.”

In their studies, the team analyzed the effects of what is called the ‘Kozai mechanism,’ which is related to the gravitational perturbation that a large body exerts on the orbit of another much smaller and further away object. They looked at how the highly eccentric comet 96P/Machholz1 is influenced by Jupiter (it will come near the orbit of Mercury in 2017, but it travels as much as 6 AU at aphelion) and it may “provide the key to explain the puzzling clustering of orbits around argument of perihelion close to 0° recently found for the population of ETNOs,” the team wrote in one of their papers.

The discovery images of 2012 VP113. Each one was taken about two hours apart on Nov. 5, 2012. Behind the object, you can see background stars and galaxies that remained still (from Earth's perspective) in the picture frame. Credit: Scott S. Sheppard: Carnegie Institution for Science
The discovery images of 2012 VP113. Each one was taken about two hours apart on Nov. 5, 2012. Behind the object, you can see background stars and galaxies that remained still (from Earth’s perspective) in the picture frame. Credit: Scott S. Sheppard: Carnegie Institution for Science

They also looked at the dwarf planet discovered last year called 2012 VP113 in the Oort cloud (its closest approach to the Sun is about 80 astronomical units) and how some researchers say it appears its orbit might be influenced by the possible presence of a dark and icy super-Earth, up to ten times larger than our planet.

“This Sedna-like object has the most distant perihelion of any known minor planet and the value of its argument of perihelion is close to 0°,” the team writes in their second paper. “This property appears to be shared by almost all known asteroids with semimajor axis greater than 150 au and perihelion greater than 30 au (the extreme trans-Neptunian objects or ETNOs), and this fact has been interpreted as evidence for the existence of a super-Earth at 250 au. In this scenario, a population of stable asteroids may be shepherded by a distant, undiscovered planet larger than the Earth that keeps the value of their argument of perihelion librating around 0° as a result of the Kozai mechanism.”

Of course, the theory put forth in two papers published by the team goes against the predictions of current models on the formation of the Solar System, which state that there are no other planets moving in circular orbits beyond Neptune.

But the team pointed to the recent discovery of a planet-forming disk around the star HL Tauri that lies more than 100 astronomical units from the star. HL Tauri is more massive and younger than our Sun and the discovery suggests that planets can form several hundred astronomical units away from the center of the system.

The team based their analysis by studying 13 different objects, so what is needed is more observations of the outer regions of our Solar System to determine what might be hiding out there.

Further reading:
Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, Raúl de la Fuente Marcos, Sverre J. Aarseth. “Flipping minor bodies: what comet 96P/Machholz 1 can tell us about the orbital evolution of extreme trans-Neptunian objects and the production of near-Earth objects on retrograde orbits”. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 446(2):1867-1873, 2015.

C. de la Fuente Marcos, R. de la Fuente Marcos. “Extreme trans-Neptunian objects and the Kozai mechanism: signalling the presence of trans-Plutonian planets? Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters 443(1): L59-L63, 2014.

SiNC press release

Discovery! Possible Dwarf Planet Found Far Beyond Pluto’s Orbit

What is a dwarf planet? Some astronomers have been asking that question after Pluto was demoted from planethood almost a decade ago, partly due to discoveries of other worlds of similar proportions.

Today, astronomers announced the discovery of 2012 VP113, a world that, assuming its reflectivity is moderate, is 280 miles (450 kilometers) in size and orbiting even further away from the sun than Pluto or even the more distant Sedna (announced in 2004). If 2012 VP113 is made up mostly of ice, this would make it large (and round) enough to be a dwarf planet, the astronomers said.

Peering further into 2012 VP113’s discovery, however, brings up several questions. What are the boundaries of the Oort Cloud, the region of icy bodies where the co-discoverers say it resides? Was it placed there due to a sort of Planet X? And what is the definition of a dwarf planet anyway?

First, a bit about 2012 VP113. Its closest approach to the Sun is about 80 astronomical units, making it 80 times further from the Sun than Earth is. This puts the object in a region of space previously known only to contain Sedna (76 AU away). It’s also far away from the Kuiper Belt, a region of rocky and icy bodies between 30 and 50 AU that includes Pluto.

The discovery images of 2012 VP113. Each one was taken about two hours apart on Nov. 5, 2012. Behind the object, you can see background stars and galaxies that remained still (from Earth's perspective) in the picture frame. Credit: Scott S. Sheppard: Carnegie Institution for Science
The discovery images of 2012 VP113. Each one was taken about two hours apart on Nov. 5, 2012. Behind the object, you can see background stars and galaxies that remained still (from Earth’s perspective) in the picture frame. Credit: Scott S. Sheppard: Carnegie Institution for Science

“The detection of 2012 VP113 confirms that Sedna is not an isolated object; instead, both bodies may be members of the inner Oort Cloud, whose objects could outnumber all other dynamically stable populations in the Solar System,” the authors wrote in their discovery paper, published today in Nature.

The Oort cloud (named after the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, who first proposed it) is thought to contain a vast number of smallish, icy bodies. This NASA web page defines its boundaries as between 5,000 and 100,000 AUs, so 2012 VP113 obviously falls short of this measure.

The astronomers hypothesize that 2012 VP113 is part of a collection of “inner Oort cloud objects” that make their closest approach at a distance of more than 50 AU, a boundary that is thought to avoid any “significant” interference from Neptune. Orbits of these objects would range no further than 1,500 AU, a location hypothesized as part of the “outer Oort cloud” — the spot where “galactic tides start to become important in the formation process,” the team wrote.

“Some of these inner Oort cloud objects could rival the size of Mars or even Earth. This is because many of the inner Oort cloud objects are so distant that even very large ones would be too faint to detect with current technology,” stated Scott Sheppard, co-author of the paper and a solar system researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science. (The lead author is the Gemini Observatory’s Chadwick Trujillo, who co-discovered several dwarf planets with the California Institute of Technology’s Mike Brown.)

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

One large question is how 2012 VP113 and Sedna came to be. And of course, with only two objects, it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions. Theory 1 supposes that the gas giant planets beyond Earth ejected a “rogue” planet (or planets) that in turn threw objects from the Kuiper Belt to the more distant inner Oort Cloud. “These planet-sized objects could either remain (unseen) in the Solar System or have been ejected from the Solar System during the creation of the inner Oort Cloud,” the researchers wrote.

(Planet X hopers: Note that NASA just released results from its Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer that found nothing Saturn’s size (or bigger) as far as 10,000 AU, and nothing bigger than Jupiter at 26,000 AU.)

Theory 2 postulates that a passing star moved objects closer to the Sun into the inner Oort cloud. The last, “less-explored” theory is that these objects are “extrasolar planetesimals” — small worlds from other stars — that happened to be close to the Sun when it was born in a field of stars.

However these objects came to be, the astronomers estimate there are 900 objects with orbits similar to Sedna and 2012 VP113 that have diameters larger than 620 miles (1,000 kilometers). How do we know which are dwarf planets, however, given their distance and small size?

Artist's impression of Makemake, a dwarf planet about two-thirds Pluto's size. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)
Artist’s impression of Makemake, a dwarf planet about two-thirds Pluto’s size. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

The International Astronomical Union’s definition of a dwarf planet doesn’t mention how big an object has to be to qualify as a dwarf planet. It reads: “A dwarf planet is an object in orbit around the Sun that is large enough (massive enough) to have its own gravity pull itself into a round (or nearly round) shape. Generally, a dwarf planet is smaller than Mercury. A dwarf planet may also orbit in a zone that has many other objects in it. For example, an orbit within the asteroid belt is in a zone with lots of other objects.”

That same page mentions there are only five recognized dwarf planets: Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Makemake and Haumea. Brown led the discovery of the last three dwarf planets in this list, and calls himself “the man who killed Pluto” because his finds helped demote Pluto from planethood to dwarf planet status.

It’s hard for official bodies to keep up with the pace of discovery, however. Brown’s webpage lists 46 “likely” dwarf planets, which under this definition would give him 15 discoveries.

“Reality … does not pay much attention to official lists kept by the IAU or by anyone else,” he wrote on that page. “A more interesting question to ask is: how many round objects are there in the solar system that are not planets? These are, by the definition, dwarf planets, whether or not they ever make it to any offiicially sanctioned list. If the category of dwarf planet is important, then it is the reality that is important, not the official list.”

Artist's impression of the dwarf planet Haumea and its moons, Hi'aka and Namaka. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the dwarf planet Haumea and its moons, Hi’aka and Namaka. Credit: NASA

His analysis (which focuses on Kuiper Belt objects) notes that most objects are too faint for us to notice if they are round or not, but you can get a sense of how round an object is by its size and composition. The asteroid belt’s Ceres (at 560 miles or 900 km) is the only known round, rocky object.

For icier objects, he suggested looking to icy moons to understand how small an object can be and still be round. Saturn’s moon Mimas is round at 250 miles (400 km), which he classifies as a “reasonable lower limit” (since observed satellites of 125 miles/200 km are not round).

Discovery of 2012 VP113 came courtesy of the new Dark Energy Camera (DECam) at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s 4-meter telescope in Chile. The orbit was determined with the Magellan 6.5-meter telescope at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, also in Chile.

The paper, called “A Sedna-like body with a perihelion of 80 astronomical units”, will soon be available on Nature’s website.