20 Common Questions About Our Alleged New Ninth Planet (With Answers!)
Last week, researchers from Caltech announced they had found evidence suggesting an as-yet undiscovered ninth planet may be lurking in the hinterlands of our solar system. We at Explosions, Inc. have taken it upon ourselves to answer some of the most common questions that have arisen in the wake of this announcement. You can add your voice to the chorus of confusion below in the comments.
Do we have a new ninth planet?
No, not yet. At the moment it’s existence is supported by one interpretation of data but it has to be seen before scientists declare it real.
Will we be able to ever see it?
If it’s there, probably. It could be as many as ten thousand times more dim than our last ninth “planet” but we have telescopes, like the Subaru telescope in Hawaii that could find it if we know where to look.
So how do we know it might be there?
By watching Uranus wobble......(snicker). No really, there are perturbations in the orbits of Uranus, Neptune, and several Kuiper belt objects that imply a large body is acting upon them. *To be fair, the wobble in Uranus and Neptune’s orbits aren’t real. They were mistakes made in calculations. I just can’t let go of the wobbling Uranus joke.
Is that it?
No. The theorized planet would explain the odd orbits of some Kuiper belt objects that have baffled scientists so far. Whereas most objects orbit the sun in a relatively flat disk, there are objects that are grouped in a certain way and having orbits out of the normal alignment that could be explained by a large object acting upon them.
Is there any other way to explain the weird orbits of these objects?
So far, no. The chance that the objects are grouped together and travel just so by coincidence has been all but ruled out. Well, there’s a .007% chance that it’s just a fluke but that’s pretty unlikely.
So how far away is this “Planet X”?
It’s far. Really far. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly far away it is. Look at it this way: you know when you wake up in the middle of the night and you have to pee but it’s so cold and you’re so warm and comfy and the bathroom is just so far away? It’s even farther than that feels. The scientific measurement is somewhere around 200 AU (astronomical units) at it’s closest approach to the sun. *One AU is the average distance of the Earth to the sun, about 93 million miles. The last contender for ninth planet is about 39 AU.
This isn’t the first time we thought we had an extra planet, right?
Oh, Lordy no! Using orbit perturbations to predict possible planets has been in vogue since before Neptune was discovered in 1846. The search to explain strange wobbles led Percival Lowell to declare the ninth planet found in 1930. Spoiler alert: He was wrong.
I’m not done yet. There was also a time when astronomers misclassified Ceres, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, as a planet. They expected to find a planet in the area based on their calculations. Ceres almost fit the bill until astronomers found more and more objects in the same orbital area and then realized we had a belt of objects instead of a planet.
How big would this object have to be?
As much as ten times the mass of the Earth, or about three times it’s size.
Darn tootin’. And that last one wasn’t a question.
Sorry. So if it’s that big, why haven’t we seen it before?
Well, space is big too. Please reference Douglas Adam’s excellent travel guide, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for more information on the enormity of the universe. Also, the scientists who think they’ve found a planet conjecture it may be on a 20,000 year orbit around the sun.
Why would such a big planet be so far away from the other planets?
It could have formed closer to the sun and been ejected from the solar system. If it happened a long time ago, the complex web of gravity of surrounding stars could have kept it from completely breaking away.
Um, theoretically. You know the saying about “in an infinitely large universe..........”
Have we found Nibiru?
I thought you’d never ask. Short answer: No. For those of you not members of the tin foil hat brigade, planet Nibiru was postulated by a supposed UFO contactee (note, NOT an astronomer) who received her information by an implant (her claim) in her brain. Hiding behind the sun, Nibiru was scheduled to sweep through the inner solar system in the early 2000s and create widespread destruction. The date for that disastrous planetary drive by has, I believe, been postponed.
So we’re not going to die?
We most certainly are! On a galactic scale, each and every one of us has nothing more to look forward to than the cold embrace of death. On a galactic scale. Locally though, nah, you’re good.
So it would be presumptuous of me to crack open my neighbor’s skull and feast on the goo within?
Hey, you do you. But we’re drifting off topic.
Right, sorry. So, uh, what about Pluto?
What about it? After just one night of passion in the planetarium, Pluto never called. Pluto is dead to me. Next question.
Would this have implications for any Kuiper belt objects that were once or may again be considered planets?
Well, I’d imagine that the case for Plu...I mean any Kuiper belt objects like that becoming planets again would be weakened, especially if the hypothesized planet is comprised of the same materials as the other eight planets. Nostalgia is good and all, but the Kuiper belt objects are more closely related to each other than they are to the planets. I sure they’re happier out there, together with their own kind. Sure they may miss what they once had and let slip through their fingers. Maybe every now and then they even think back to a particular night and the forbidden thrill of discovery as we......uh. Never mind.
How sure/not sure are scientists that we’ve found a ninth planet?
The researchers making the claim say they have around 60% confidence in their interpretation of the data. Other astronomers, not so much.
How will we know for certain if the planet exists?
Right now it’s a matter of sighting it on several occasions in different parts of the sky. This will be difficult but not impossible. Based upon the data collected, they should be able to figure out roughly where in its orbit the planet would be and then, using a powerful telescope, maybe 50 or so nights of scanning swathes of the sky could get us to a yay or nay verdict. In theory.
When will we know for certain if the planet exists?
The finest nerds Caltech has to offer are crunching the numbers as we speak.
Last Question: Is there a chance that this story is related to the story about anomalous signals coming from space that some astronomers think could be signs of a massive alien construction and, if so, what would it mean for us?
Probably not. Astronomy is the study of the universe and most of it is located very far away from us, making for some great hypothetical scenarios. But science is ploddingly patient and all ideas must be rigorously tested before leaping to conclusions. Still, to be prudent, immediately after writing this I plan to flee to the official Explosion, Inc. underground fortress with a stack of comics and my Xbox. If you bring whiskey you can come too.