The scientists that demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status may have finally found its replacement - a ninth gas giant in the far edges of the solar system.
A team of researchers from Caltech that has a knack for rewriting space textbooks has made a stunning discovery. According to a report from Space.com, researchers announced that there could be a massive planet, roughly 10 times the size of Earth, lurking in the outer reaches of the solar system.
“Planet Nine,” as scientists call it, would once again shake up common knowledge about our own solar system. The recent study suggesting that Planet Nine could still be orbiting the sun was led by Mike Brown from Caltech in Pasadena, CA. Brown wrote the study ten years ago that changed Pluto’s status from the solar system’s ninth planet to just a dwarf planet.
Brown and his partner, Konstantin Batygin, were tipped off about Planet Nine’s potential existence by two previous studies that suggested something extremely massive was interfering with the orbital paths of Pluto and its several moons. The planet has not been directly observed yet, but Brown and Batygin think that a telescope sighting could happen relatively soon.
“It’s actually not obscenely faint,” Brown says. “In fact, it’s bright enough over a lot of its orbit that we should have seen it already, if it’s in the closest approaches to the sun. You could almost see it with some backyard telescopes.”
The planet likely follows an irregular orbital path, coming within 200 to 300 astronomical units, or AU, to the sun on the near end and reaching as far as 1,200 AU on the far end. An AU is equivalent to the average distance between the Earth and the sun, roughly 150 million kilometers.
Scientists estimate that it would take roughly 50 nights of staring at the sky before covering the swathe of ground where Planet Nine could potentially be hiding. The planet, which would likely be the fourth largest in the solar system, could come close enough to Earth to reveal its true identity. Brown thinks that it’s likely that astronomers will catch a glimpse of the planet in the near future.
A press release from Caltech describing the details of the search for Planet Nine can be found here.