Scientists believe that a massive planet lurks in the outer reached of the solar system, but have they proved its existence?
Earlier this month, the astronomy community was abuzz with news that researchers had potentially found evidence for a new planet, a massive gas giant that was thrown out of orbit and flung towards Pluto and beyond. According to a report from Space.com, however, researchers are reiterating that the discovery is still only a theory – no concrete proof for the elusive Planet Nine has been discovered to date.
Headlines this January were claiming that the discovery of a new planet, known only as Planet Nine, had been made after scientists noticed something was going on with the alignment of Pluto and its four moons. Researchers noticed a discrepancy in the relative gravities acting on the dwarf planet and its satellites, and reasoned that there must be some other massive body that was influencing others around it.
According to a video released by NASA’s director of planetary science, Jim Green, however, the actual facts paint a much more uncertain picture. “The idea of a new planet is certainly an exciting one for me as a planetary scientist, and I think for all of us. It is not, however, the detection of a new planet. It’s too early to say with certainty that there is a so-called ‘Planet-X’ out there,” he said.
If Planet Nine did exist, scientists believe it would be situated more than 20 times farther from the sun than the last gas giant of its kind, Neptune. Scientists would expect to find the planet somewhere in the Kuiper Belt, the region of tiny, ice-covered rocks that includes and extends beyond Pluto at the very outer rim of the solar system.
So far, nobody has been able to get a visual confirmation of the mysterious Planet Nine. Researchers expect that it would be easy to spot with a telescope, and predict that it would take a few months of scanning before confirming a sighting. Until anyone sees the planet, however, there is no way to prove that it exists. Stay tuned for more Planet Nine news as astronomers carry out a widespread census of the outermost reaches of the solar system over the coming months.
A Caltech press release describing the initial discovery that led to the Planet Nine theory can be found here.