A binary pair of scientists caused a bit of a stir recently after making a bold claim about a potential 9th planet in our solar system.
This isn’t about a quest to restore Pluto back to planetary status. This is potentially about a planet at the other end of the size spectrum. These scientists believe they will soon find a planet 4 times the mass of Jupiter and 15,000 times farther from the sun than earth, way past even dwarf planet pluto which is only 39 times farther out.
Two astronomers, Dan Whitmire and John Matese who are professors at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette recently announced that this mega planet is probably out there, 1.4 trillion miles away. They even christened it Tyche, after a Greek goddess. Imagine if astronomer Tycho Brahe and goddess Tyche hooked up.
So why do they even believe this? Have they actually spotted it?…No…but they have inferred this planet’s existence because of something I’ll call UOCB or Unusual Oort Cloud Behaviour.
The Oort cloud is a roughly spherical agglomeration of trillions of chunks of ice (water, methane, carbon monoxide etc) in the gravitational outskirts of the solar system, tens of thousands of AUs from the sun. (pluto is 32 AUs)
When I say far I mean pretty far. The outermost parts of the OORT Cloud are 1 light year away. That’s 1/4 the distance to to the nearest star.
Quick!…whats the name of that star??…………..proxima centauri.
The final key thing you need to know about this outfield of the solar system is that long period comets that occasionally visit us come from there. Gravitational disturbences can jostle obejcts in the cloud and send them careening into the inner solar system,
Matese recently said:
“There’s evidence that some Oort cloud comets display orbital peculiarities…We’re saying that perhaps the pattern is indicative that there’s a planet there.”
So these scientists were exploring an anomaly, which is how a lot of great discoveries start. That reminds me of a favorite aphorism….Discoveries are not usually made by a scientists saying “Eureka” but rather…”That’s odd”.
Anywho…the paths of many of the long-period comets that have entered the inner solar system for the past 200 years have had an unusual angle of inclination that our theories about the Oort cloud do not handle easily. If you hypothesize then that a huge source of gravity out in the cloud is disturbing some of the comets nearby, then the anomaly starts to make more sense.
That’s great and all if they’re correct. The bottom line though is it’s far too premature to start popping corks like some news outlets seems to want to. Our buddy Phil PLait put it well when he blogged:
“I read their papers, and thought the data were interesting but unconvincing. The sample size was too small. A bigger study was done, but again the effects weren’t quite enough to rise to the level of breakthrough. I’m not saying the astronomers are wrong — the data were certainly provocative, and potentially correct! Just not firm enough.”
A lot of astronomers seem to be echoing similar sentiments.
Hal Levison, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado said:
“I have nothing against the idea, but I think the signal that he claims he sees is very subtle, and I’m not sure it’s statistically significant,”
Maybe it’s just the Boulder Colorado Astronomers who have a beef with the data…I’m just sayin’
So how do we resolve this?
These scientists believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer or WISE if you’re into acronyms.
The WISE Space telescope has been scanning the heavens in the right wavelength and it could have evidence of Tyche’s exitence already in its data banks. Do people even say “data banks” anymore? Series of installments of this data will start to be released this April and these scientists think Tyche will be spotted buried in there within 2 years.
If it is that would be great. A new planet dwarfing Jupiter would make a great addition to the family. If it isn’t found in WISE’s data then perhaps Tyche doesn’t exist or maybe WISE can’t resolve it which I’m sure will cause the debate of Tyche’s existence to continue.