For ages, even before astronomers stripped Pluto of its title of being a "planet," there was a raging debate on the existence of a hitherto undiscovered huge planet on the distant icy outer edges of our solar system. Back then, it was referred to as the ominous sounding "Planet X." While most modern astronomers accept that Planet X, at least as originally defined, does not exist, a new press release from NASA might just change that belief.
The press release issued by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory talks about several indirect signs -- mainly gravitational footprints -- that now makes a compelling case in favor of the existence of something called Planet Nine.
According to NASA, this ninth planet is so distant that even with its large size, it is nearly undetectable. The large size of Planet Nine, however, is affecting bodies that lie within the inner solar system and is perhaps even tilting the entire solar system to one side. To be able to exert such a force on the solar system, Planet Nine, as per current estimates, should have 10 times the mass of the Earth. The planet is also believed to be 20 times farther from the Sun than Neptune is.
According to Konstantin Batygin, a planetary astrophysicist at Caltech in Pasadena, who has been tracking the elusive Planet Nine for several years, it is now difficult to imagine our solar system without this Planet Nine.
"There are now five different lines of observational evidence pointing to the existence of Planet Nine. If you were to remove this explanation and imagine Planet Nine does not exist, then you generate more problems than you solve. All of a sudden, you have five different puzzles, and you must come up with five different theories to explain them."
In 2016, Batygin and another Caltech astronomer, Mike Brown, first talked about the effect of Planet Nine on six known objects in the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy bodies stretching from Neptune outward toward interstellar space. All six objects were observed to have a highly elliptical orbit pointing in the same direction. If that wasn't all, all six of them were also "tilted" downwards about 30 degrees. After that paper was published in 2016, two more clues came to light that once again reinforced the possibility of the existence of Planet Nine.
A study led by Batygin's graduate student Elizabeth Bailey showed that Planet Nine was large enough to have tilted the planets of our solar system during the last 4.5 billion years. Could the massive gravitational pull of Planet Nine be the reason why all planets have their orbits tilted by about six degrees compared to the Sun's equator? According to Batygin, eventually, Planet Nine will "make the entire solar-system plane precess or wobble, just like a top on a table."
While all these are indirect signs that indicate the existence of Planet Nine, the ultimate prize for NASA would be to find the elusive planet and settle the debate once and for all. Batygin and his associates are using the Subaru Telescope at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii to try to do just that. It remains to be seen if the team manages to one day find conclusive evidence that proves the existence of Planet Nine.
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