Based on new evidence, scientists say that the ninth planet of our solar system may be located billions of miles past Neptune.
Authors of the study, Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown, both professors in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), said that the orbits of a few Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) may indicate the presence of a planet a lot bigger than Earth.
The Kuiper belt, sometimes referred to as the Edgeworth–Kuiper belt, is a region in the Solar System located beyond the orbit of Neptune. It is made of thousands of Kuiper Belt objects – which are generally small. None of the KBOs known so far are even close to the size of the supposed planet.
Currently, five dwarf planets around the Kuiper belt are recognised by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). These are: Eris, Makemake, Ceres (probably formed in the Kuiper belt and later migrated to the asteroid belt), Haumea, and former planet Pluto.
The new research is based on computer modelling. Batygin and Brown estimate that within five years, the planet could be viewed on telescopes – provided that it is in fact real. Although it likely has a large mass – almost like Neptune – the planet will still be difficult to observe because of its distance from the Sun, which means that there is lack of light where the planet orbits.
A similar proposal for a new planet took place when Eris (minor-planet designation 136199 Eris) – a trans-Neptunian dwarf planet – was first discovered in Januray 2005. The object was initially announced as the tenth planet of our solar system, but in 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided to strip Eris and Pluto (which were similar in mass and size) of their planetary title. Thus, the number of planets in our solar system was reduced to eight.
Despite the high hopes and excitement of Batygin and Brown, not everyone in the astronomical community is convinced that the new analysis points to the existence of a ninth planet.
Scott Sheppard, a researcher of small celestial bodies at the Carnegie Institution for Science, said that more data is needed before anything can be confirmed. However, he is somewhat optimistic that Batygin and Brown’s work may eventually lead to the discovery of the ninth planet in years to come. Sheppard also said that the possibility of a mini-Neptune to be out there is more real now than it ever was.
The findings were published Wednesday (Jan. 20) in The Astronomical Journal.
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