Published: Thu, June 07, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

Is the Mysterious Planet Nine Just a Swarm of Asteroids?

Batygin and Brown calculated that this world, dubbed Planet Nine, may be 10 times more massive than Earth and orbit the sun about 20 times farther away than Neptune does. "We can solve a lot of these problems by just taking into account that question".

This means Sedna's orbit can transition from being relatively normal to appearing to be detached from our solar system because of a multitude of interactions with the gravity of smaller bodies.

The hypothesis of the existence of a ninth planet was first put forward in 2012, when Scott Sheppard and Chadwick Trujillo, two scientists from the Carnegie Institution of Science and Northern Arizona University, discovered several celestial bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune (the so-called trans-Neptunian objects, or Tno), composed mainly of rocks, ice and solid methane. According to some of the astronomers these orbits are believed to be the signature of hypothesizing "planet nine", as suggested by a new study. The key evidence was the highly eccentric orbits of some Kuiper Belt objects, which are tilted 30 degrees off-kilter from the rest of the planets.

The work explaining the collective gravity theory was presented at a press briefing at the 232nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which runs from June 3-7 in Denver.

The Kuiper Belt, the region immediately beyond Neptune, harbors TNOs of many sizes. There is also a theory that suggests unseen ninth planet lurking beyond Neptune may have kicked up the orbits of these detached objects.

To review: The primary evidence for the existence of Planet 9 is the large number of TNOs with highly unusual orbits within our solar system. This explains the oddball behavior of Sedna, which is a little smaller than Pluto but follows a massive, circular orbital path to circumnavigate the sun, just like other detached objects. Sedna itself was only discovered in 2003, while the second-largest (by volume) and most massive dwarf planet, Eris, was found in 2005.

This research was supported by NASA Solar System Workings and the Rocky Mountain Advanced Computing Consortium Summit Supercomputer.

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It was the dynamics of detached objects like Sedna that astrophysicist Jacob Fleisig was studying when he noticed, according to his computer simulations, that occasionally they came into alignment, like the hands of a clock.

Planet Nine has not been confirmed, however, and all attempts to find it have been fruitless.

"These orbits crash into the bigger body, and what happens is those interaction will change its orbit from an oval shape to a more circular shape". While the researchers couldn't directly connect their observations to the collision that wiped out the dinosaurs and most life on Earth, Fleisig called the possibility "tantalizing".

The findings may also provide clues around another phenomenon: the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The jostling of these asteroids and space junk might have led to other effects like regularly directing comets into the inner solar system - some of which could have headed toward Earth.

"The handful we've seen is not enough", Fleisig said.

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