Has Caltech Found a Plausible Giant Outer Planet?

 

Orbits of the ice planets and the proposed giant planet.I’ve gotten texted twice today about the story that Caltech astronomers have found more evidence there could be a massive planet in the outer solar system, perhaps ten times the mass of Earth.  My initial reaction was to dismiss it as a crackpot theory, because there have been a couple of poorly-supported claims about this kind of thing in the past five-odd years. But this one seems better.

For one thing, the astronomers are well known and have reputations for reliable work and solid accomplishments. Mike Brown and Chad Trujillo have found other ice planets in the outer solar system, at least through direct observation. And whereas the earlier claims were based on pretty thin evidence, this one has stood up to a direct challenge from Brown already.

What’s happening is that the most distant ice planets in our solar system, like Sedna, turn out to have elongated orbits — ellipses — with the Sun near one end. Ordinarily, you’d expect that the point of closest approach, the perihelion, would be randomly distributed for each of these. Some would swing by on one side of the Sun, others on another side. But Trujillo found that they’re mostly oriented to swing past just one side of the Sun.

One possibility is that a massive planet is out there, regularly running through their orbits in such a way that it scattered them away, making them cluster together on the far side.

Mike Brown initially dismissed this idea, saying (pretty much correctly) that planetary astronomers like to invoke Planet X whenever they see something strange in a planet’s orbit. Go read anonymous’s review of The Hunt for Vulcan for a classic example. But as he tried to debunk the idea, he wound up convincing himself it was the best explanation.

The discussion I’m seeing among professional astronomers is a mix of the eager and skeptical, with the skeptics pointing out that there have been some infrared searches of the whole sky that were able to rule out any more undiscovered massive planets … but only for certain limits in mass and distance. There is debate about how brightly such a planet would glow in the infrared, and whether the existing searches should have ruled it out or not.

On a final note, I’ll say that Mike Brown’s scientific work is good enough for me to overlook for the moment his obnoxious behavior regarding Pluto. He was probably the big mover behind the International Astronomical Union’s move to unilaterally redefine the meaning of the word “planet” in every language on Earth just to keep Pluto out of the definition. I’ll write some other time about the dirty tricks that were used to pull that vote off, but I don’t want to go too far out on a tangent now.

Anyway, I’ve had the impression for years that he’s got a big ego, and he has some kind of weird personal grudge against the planet that goes beyond rational explanation. I don’t mean this as a flippant joke.  His Twitter handle is @plutokiller. And with that in mind, I am not going to call this thing “Planet Nine.”  That’s just feeding his ego about trying to erase Pluto from the books, and it’s really blatant. Notice in the chart above, which comes from Brown’s press release, they show the orbit of Neptune, but not the larger and more relevant orbit of Pluto, which is generally used for these kinds of comparisons. This is just to stroke Mike Brown’s ego and pretend that he has somehow made Pluto physically disappear.

But he does solid work, and while I hold out the possibility that he’s wrong, I’m not dismissing this as a crackpot idea. The next step is to look for the thing, and I read that a couple of observatories are already looking along the proposed orbit for to see if anything’s there. It’s an exciting possibility, and I’m hoping they find it.

For those interested in the details, here’s the paper.

Published in General, Science & Technology
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  1. GLDIII Reagan
    GLDIII
    @GLDIII

    On a final note, I’ll say that Mike Brown’s scientific work is good enough for me to overlook for the moment his obnoxious behavior regarding Pluto. He was probably the big mover behind the International Astronomical Union’s move to unilaterally redefine the meaning of the word “planet” in every language on Earth just to keep Pluto out of the definition. I’ll write some other time about the dirty tricks that were used to pull that vote off, but I don’t want to go too far out on a tangent now.

    Anyway, I’ve had the impression for years that he’s got a big ego, and he has some kind of weird personal grudge against the planet that goes beyond rational explanation. I don’t mean this as a flippant joke. His Twitter handle is @plutokiller. And with that in mind, I am not going to call this thing “Planet Nine.” That’s just feeding his ego about trying to erase Pluto from the books, and it’s really blatant. Notice in the chart above, which comes from Brown’s press release, they show the orbit of Neptune, but not the larger and more relevant orbit of Pluto, which is generally used for these kinds of comparisons. This is just to stroke Mike Brown’s ego and pretend that he has somehow made Pluto physically disappear.

    So Tim, are you telling me that some Astronomers have big Ego’s?  Who would have guessed from the lot I work with….. not :)

    • #31
  2. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    In the interests of annoying Mike Brown, there’s a 8,000 x 8,000  composite image of Pluto available from New Horizons. It’s a monster — 29MB — but it’s amazing and you could spend days looking around this crazy little world. Here’s the little version:

    480px-Pluto-01_Stern_03_Pluto_Color_TXT

    I cropped and resized it, so it’s now my desktop background. As one friend put it this morning: “Pluto, bless it’s heart.”

    • #32
  3. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:In the interests of annoying Mike Brown, there’s a 8,000 x 8,000 composite image of Pluto available from New Horizons. It’s a monster — 29MB — but it’s amazing and you could spend days looking around this crazy little world. Here’s the little version:

    480px-Pluto-01_Stern_03_Pluto_Color_TXT

    I cropped and resized it, so it’s now my desktop background. As one friend put it this morning: “Pluto, bless it’s heart.”

    Now I kinda understand what that Brown fella was getting at.  It does kinda look like a mushroom from the top.

    • #33
  4. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: I cropped and resized it, so it’s now my desktop background. As one friend put it this morning: “Pluto, bless it’s heart.”

    It could have used a little more atmosphere.

    • #34
  5. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:In the interests of annoying Mike Brown, there’s a 8,000 x 8,000 composite image of Pluto available from New Horizons. It’s a monster — 29MB — but it’s amazing and you could spend days looking around this crazy little world. Here’s the little version:

    480px-Pluto-01_Stern_03_Pluto_Color_TXT

    I cropped and resized it, so it’s now my desktop background. As one friend put it this morning: “Pluto, bless it’s heart.”

    That’s a planet, dagnambit!

    • #35
  6. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Maybe the definition ought to be something simple:  it has enough gravity to be a sphere.

    • #36
  7. Tim H. Inactive
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    GLDIII—You work with astronomers, then? I just saw in your bio that you’re an aerospace engineer, and you’ve got me intrigued. What do you work on?

    • #37
  8. Tim H. Inactive
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    Manfred Arcane—
    I don’t know that much about magnetars, and it may turn out to be a normal magnetar example. But in case it’s not, think of the alternative they give in that Sci Am article: the destruction of a super-massive star. In that case, they are intrinsically rare, and we’re not going to see many of these. But I think that their timeline of 50-100 years to resolve the issue is ‘way too long. By using more telescopes to search the sky faster, you increase your discovery rate. For that matter, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will be coming online in a few years and will search the entire sky to very good photographic depth every three days. By going deeper, they’ll see farther and catch more of these.

    • #38
  9. GLDIII Reagan
    GLDIII
    @GLDIII

    Tim H.:GLDIII—You work with astronomers, then? I just saw in your bio that you’re an aerospace engineer, and you’ve got me intrigued. What do you work on?

    I am at GSFC, I have bit of intellectual design flying past Pluto (Ralph), sampling on Mars (SAM), and supporting instruments in Hubble (the cooling loops attached to the axial instruments). Started life with some work on the thermal design for COBE (spacecraft), BBXRT (instrument) then moved over to the guys looking down.

    Most of the career has been spend on EOS for instrument development, then NPP, now JPSS (remnants of NPOESS). Some assistance on the GOES instruments, and other weather/climate info gathering instruments. I still do thermal design work for the daily stuff, but the ability to play well with others and understand most of the other physical stuff that go into instrument design (Mechanical, Optical, Detectors) makes me useful for early design and proposal work we do for getting business.

    Jack of all trades, master of none.

    • #39
  10. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Randy Webster:Maybe the definition ought to be something simple: it has enough gravity to be a sphere.

    That’s currently part of the IAU definition (though, as Tim says, they’re not quite the final word on the matter as they like to present themselves as). Basically, their definition is something that:

    1. Directly orbits a star;
    2. Is sufficiently massive to form a sphere; and
    3. Has swept its orbit clear (meaning that it doesn’t share it’s orbit with independent objects).

    All three conditions are satisfied by Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

    The first two are shared with quite a few additional objects, including Ceres, Pluto/Charon, and Eris.

    • #40
  11. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Randy Webster:Maybe the definition ought to be something simple: it has enough gravity to be a sphere.

    That’s currently part of the IAU definition (though, as Tim says, they’re not quite the final word on the matter as they like to present themselves as). Basically, their definition is something that:

    1. Directly orbits a star;
    2. Is sufficiently massive to form a sphere; and
    3. Has swept its orbit clear (meaning that it doesn’t share it’s orbit with independent objects).

    All three conditions are satisfied by Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

    The first two are shared with quite a few additional objects, including Ceres, Pluto/Charon, and Eris.

    Thank you, Tom.  That made me smarter.

    • #41
  12. Tim H. Inactive
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    GLDIII—Nice resume. I was at Goddard from 2001-03 as a National Research Council postdoc, over in the high energy lab in the late, lamented Building 2. Which building are you in?

    I work only with the Hubble, but as an observer, I don’t get to actually play with the equipment. ;) I’ve gotten to use some of the instruments you’ve cooled, though!

    I’ve got a friend on New Horizons in mission planning, Mark “Indy” Kochte. He was on MESSENGER until it plowed into Mercury, then switched over to N. H. a few months before the flyby.

    • #42
  13. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    GLDIII: I am at GSFC, I have bit of intellectual design flying past Pluto (Ralph), sampling on Mars (SAM), and supporting instruments in Hubble (the cooling loops attached to the axial instruments). Started life with some work on the thermal design for COBE (spacecraft), BBXRT (instrument) then moved over to the guys looking down.

    Tim H.:GLDIII—Nice resume. I was at Goddard from 2001-03 as a National Research Council postdoc, over in the high energy lab in the late, lamented Building 2. Which building are you in?

    I work only with the Hubble, but as an observer, I don’t get to actually play with the equipment. ;) I’ve gotten to use some of the instruments you’ve cooled, though!

    I’m such a lightweight.  I got nothing, space-wise.

    Except one time (more than ten years ago, now, I’m getting old) I’d just come out of the jungles down south.  We had a satellite/internet thing going.  I was catching up on news and e-mails while I used a (fine, Cuban-seed Nicaraguan-grown) cigar to burn the leeches off.  I saw a group e-mail my college class kept up congratulating one of my classmates, who’d gone aviation and then into the astronaut program, on getting selected for a shuttle mission.

    All I could do was look around my miserable hooch, burn more leeches off, and wonder where I’d gone wrong with my life.

    • #43
  14. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Boss Mongo: All I could do was look around my miserable hooch, burn more leeches off, and wonder where I’d gone wrong with my life.

    It worked out, though.  His mission was one where they were testing out a new machine that turned urine back into drinking water.

    Even Steven.

    • #44
  15. Tim H. Inactive
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    Boy, Boss Mongo, even if you’re not an astronaut, that’s a heck of a description to lead with. It sounds like a scene from a novel. You are or were military, I’m guessing? Which branch?

    • #45
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Tim H.:Boy, Boss Mongo, even if you’re not an astronaut, that’s a heck of a description to lead with. It sounds like a scene from a novel. You are or were military, I’m guessing? Which branch?

    He’s too humble. As an Army special forces officer, Mongo specialized in kicking enemy butt clear into orbit. That sounds like an astronomical connection to me.

    • #46
  17. GLDIII Reagan
    GLDIII
    @GLDIII

    Tim H.:GLDIII—Nice resume. I was at Goddard from 2001-03 as a National Research Council postdoc, over in the high energy lab in the late, lamented Building 2. Which building are you in?

    I work only with the Hubble, but as an observer, I don’t get to actually play with the equipment. ;) I’ve gotten to use some of the instruments you’ve cooled, though!

    I’ve got a friend on New Horizons in mission planning, Mark “Indy” Kochte. He was on MESSENGER until it plowed into Mercury, then switched over to N. H. a few months before the flyby.

    On the hill in Bld 7 with all of the testing facilities…and the tours with the bright eyed bushy tailed youngens.  Looking at our 45 year old facilities (and whatever items of space hardware we have under integration on the floor).

    I remember the “High Confidence” boys in the High Energy Branch located in building 2 (Code 666, I will let that reference stand). I recall the first young lady (well at the time) that cracked that group was Kim Weaver. I was in a training course with her and towards the end on the week she was tearfully confiding to me what mean sexist pigs most of them where….  I tried to tell her that it was not personal and to not internalize their behavior as a mark on her, nor were they really bias about towards gender, but that is the way they treated any of us inferior beings (Lord knows they we treating the engineers as barely trained oompa loopa monkeys).  I have to say though, as a bunch they eventually grew out of that mentality (or retired & died off).  Huummmm…. Code 666, maybe that is why they razed the building?

    Yup fun time dealing with “Principal Investigators”.

    • #47
  18. TheRoyalFamily Member
    TheRoyalFamily
    @TheRoyalFamily

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: All three conditions are satisfied by Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

    Noticed that Jupiter isn’t on that list (and it shouldn’t be). I guess he isn’t a planet either.

    • #48
  19. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    TheRoyalFamily:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: All three conditions are satisfied by Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

    Noticed that Jupiter isn’t on that list (and it shouldn’t be). I guess he isn’t a planet either.

    Wow. Not sure how that happened.

    How wouldn’t Jupiter be on the list?

    • #49
  20. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: How wouldn’t Jupiter be on the list?

    Micro-star?

    • #50
  21. TheRoyalFamily Member
    TheRoyalFamily
    @TheRoyalFamily

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: How wouldn’t Jupiter be on the list?

    Jupiter has a bunch of asteroids sharing its orbital neighborhood (“a bunch” meaning ~100,000). True, they do simply because of Jupiter’s gravity, but Jupiter’s orbit isn’t clear. Neither do Mars, EARTH, or Neptune have clear orbits (Neptune has that silly little guy Pluto in its neighborhood…which is why Pluto got kicked out of the planet club in the first place).

    It’s mostly a matter of wording, but the wording is the wording.

    • #51
  22. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    TheRoyalFamily:Jupiter has a bunch of asteroids sharing its orbital neighborhood (“a bunch” meaning ~100,000). True, they do simply because of Jupiter’s gravity, but Jupiter’s orbit isn’t clear. Neither do Mars, EARTH, or Neptune have clear orbits (Neptune has that silly little guy Pluto in its neighborhood…which is why Pluto got kicked out of the planet club in the first place).

    As I recall in the IAU definition, a planet has to clear a certain percentage of the mass within its orbit. Even with its Trojans, Jupiter easily clears this.

    • #52
  23. Tim H. Inactive
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    GLDIII—Oh, yes, I know Kim Weaver! We’re in the same field (active galaxies), and we shared a big office (cubicle farm, anyway) while I was there. She’s very nice. I think we might have first met when I was still a grad student at the Space Telescope Science Institute, just before I moved down to Goddard. She has been doing a lot of science writing in recent years, too. I remember seeing an article of hers in something like Scientific American or Discover magazine.

    My advisor there at GSFC was the late Elihu Boldt. He basically founded Goddard’s high energy lab, as I understood it, back in the 1960’s. I was his last post doc. His earlier ones includeed guys who are now running spacecraft, laboratories, and the like. I feel a bit underperforming by comparison.

    • #53
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