In 2006, we kicked dear Pluto out of the pantheon of planets and now, it seems that a new mysterious world is gearing up to fill its void in our solar system.
Scientists Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin have discovered evidence that there is a giant body lurking in the depths of space, nearly the size of Neptune and orbiting the sun only every 15,000 years. By comparison, the former only takes a mere 164 years to make its way around the big star!
Although it hasn't actually been seen yet, the icy entity is estimated to exist beyond the orbit of dwarf Pluto and encompasses a mass that is ten times that of our Earth. In fact, the gas giant is supposed to be the fifth-largest planet after Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and gives astronomers good enough reason to believe it is in fact the mysterious Planet X.
"This time we're right"
For decades, the existence of a so-called Planet X was shrouded in mystery and over the years, astronomers revisited the concept to try to explain certain unexplainable gravitational effects at the far corner of our solar system. In the 1980s, researchers even sparked a media frenzy by suggesting that the unseen planet could cause extinctions on Earth by triggering comets to hurtle towards us. Similarly, while UFO hunters have long been speculating that the planet harbors alien life, other groups have previously forecast that the world would end when this celestial body collided with Earth.
Now however, the two scientists responsible for identifying the ninth planet, argue that they have found a legitimate source behind all these speculations and while Planet X does probably exist, it's not at threatening as it sounds. They said:
“If you say, ‘We have evidence for Planet X,’ almost any astronomer will say, ‘This again? These guys are clearly crazy.’ I would, too. Why is this different? This is different because this time we’re right.”
Yet, how do they really know it exists? Well, Brown and Batygin have been studying a bizarre cluster of six objects that orbit beyond Neptune in the Kuiper belt and have come to the conclusion that a planet ten times the size of Earth is likely to be responsible for shepherding these small worlds into a peculiar elliptical orbit. They are so sure in fact, that they say there's only a 0.007% chance that this could be a coincidence.
Only a huge planet would exert such an influence over the orbits of smaller entities and keep them from coming closer to the sun. According to statistics, this so-called Planet Nine slowly twists the orbits by 90 degrees, making them perpendicular to the plane of our solar system. Brown explains:
"In the back of my head, I had this nagging memory that someone had found some of these modulating objects and not known what to make of them. And sure enough, these objects do exist. And they were exactly where our theory predicts they should be."
Here's a video explaining the observations in more detail:
So, what now?
Looking to the future, the mission is to locate Planet Nine and the astronomers are set on finding even more objects in telltale orbits shaped by this hidden giant. At the moment, despite its vast size, the mysterious planet is simply too far away to reflect the sun's rays, but hopefully it will be seen with a telescope in time. Brown hopes that the most powerful telescopes on the planet might be able to detect it if pointed in exactly the right direction. He admits:
"We've been looking for it for a while now, but the sky is pretty big. We know its path, but not where it is on that path."
Yet, until science strikes gold, he's going to remain level-headed:
"Until there’s a direct detection, it’s a hypothesis—even a potentially very good hypothesis."
So for now, let's just take comfort from the fact that this celestial body is so far away. Unlike the looming planet in Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, it doesn't pose a threat to our life on Earth and is merely another fascinating phenomenon at the edge of our solar system waiting to be discovered: