Discovering Planet Nine

Discovering Planet Nine

Astronomers at Caltech believe they’ve found an ice giant out beyond Neptune. Credit Illustration by Aleks Sennwald

Very shortly some years ago, Mike Brown discovered the tenth planet in the solar system. This was in 2005; Brown, an astronomer at Caltech, had spotted an object that officially became known as Eris (he preferred the nickname Xena). Eris was about as big as Pluto, which was still a planet back then, and it orbited the sun at a distance almost three times greater. But the existence of Eris raised troubling questions, such as: What’s a planet, exactly? And if Eris is a planet, why not also various other petite spheres that orbit the sun? In the end, the International Astronomical Union categorized Eris as a dwarf planet—a polite phrase for “not a planet at all”—and, with Brown’s encouragement, Pluto was demoted, too. Instead of ten planets. the solar system now had eight. Brown still gets letters and late-night obscene calls from people who miss having a ninth planet, but he has no regrets. (In 2010, he wrote a book called “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.”) Last week he told me, “When all this happened, ten years ago, people would say, ‘Are there any other planets out there?’ And I would say, ‘Nope, that’s it. There are just eight planets, and we’ll never have any more.’ «

Brown now thinks he was wrong. Today, in The Astronomical Journal, Brown and his colleague Konstantin Batygin have published a paper with the title “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System ,” in which they make a persuasive case that there actually is a ninth planet out there. They have not observed it directly, only inferred its presence from the behavior of a handful of faraway objects, which have been caught in its gravitational sway. After more than a year of watching, calculating, and conducting computer simulations, Brown and Batygin write, “We motivate the existence of a distant, eccentric perturber.”

As best they can determine, the perturber is perhaps ten times more massive than Earth, or toughly half as massive as Neptune, and it is very distant indeed. It goes after an eccentric orbit, meaning one that is more elliptical than circular, and comes no closer to the sun than about two hundred and fifty astronomical units. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the sun to Earth, or ninety-three million miles. Jupiter is harshly five astronomical units from the sun, and Pluto averages almost forty.) At its farthest, the fresh planet is inbetween six hundred and twelve hundred astronomical units away; if the sun were on Fifth Avenue and Earth were one block west, Jupiter would be on the West Side Highway, Pluto would be in Montclair, Fresh Jersey, and the fresh planet would be somewhere near Cleveland. It takes inbetween twelve and twenty thousand years to go once around the sun. It is an ice giant, a lonely wanderer and the gravitational hooligan of the outer solar system. Brown and Batygin call it Planet Nine, and Jehoshaphat, and George. “We actually call it Fatty when we’re just talking to each other,” Brown said.

Brown acknowledged that the history of astronomy is riddled with false hopes. Urbain Le Verrier, the French mathematician who correctly predicted the existence of Neptune, in 1846, also predicted the existence of a planet orbiting inbetween the sun and Mercury. He called it Vulcan, and it turned out not to exist. Every few years, someone announces the discovery of Planet X, some large object that Galileo and four centuries of his descendants missed, only to retract it. “If somebody proposed this—if I picked up a newspaper and read a headline—my very first reaction would be, Oh my God, these guys are crazy,” Brown said of his and Batygin’s finding. “But if somebody then looked at the evidence, they’d have a hard time disagreeing that the evidence is there.”

Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the few scientists who knew in advance of the paper, said, “It’s a very solid dynamical analysis. It’s top-notch. If anybody else was making this claim, you’d have to discount it to, at best, a one-per-cent chance of being there. But the combination of Mike Brown, who has a truly solid observational sense of what’s out there, and Konstantin’s theoretical brilliance—if it’s out there, they’ve found it.” Alessandro Morbidelli, an astronomer and planetary scientist at the Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur, in Nice, France, and a referee for TheAstronomical Journal. said, “This paper for the very first time gives a smoking gun for the existence of an extra planet.”

The possibility of Planet Nine illustrates just how much our skill of the solar system has expanded in latest decades. In 1992, astronomers observed the very first evidence of the Kuiper Belt, a population of icy objects—more than a thousand, at latest count—orbiting the sun at a distance of inbetween thirty and fifty astronomical units. That same year, astrophysicists began planning a mission to Pluto (technically a Kuiper member itself). By the time the spacecraft, eventually called Fresh Horizons. arrived at its destination, last July, Pluto was less an ending than a beginning. In the interim, Brown and his colleagues Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz had spotted Sedna, a petite, icy object with an eccentric orbit well outside the Kuiper Belt; it comes no closer to the sun than seventy-six astronomical units and, at its farthest, strays more than nine hundred astronomical units away. “The very very first clue that something else was out there was our discovery of Sedna,” Brown said. “That was the very first object that didn’t fairly fit any of the existing categories.”

Sedna is typically referred to as an extreme Kuiper Belt object, albeit Brown has also placed it in the Oort Cloud, another reservoir of icy scraps, which is thought to occupy the utmost edges of the solar system. Several other objects like it have since emerged, with license-plate names like 2012 VP113. which was discovered two years ago by Trujillo and his colleague Scott Shepard. (They nicknamed it “Biden.”) Such objects spend so much of their time so far away that only a few are visible during our lifetime. Of those that have been seen, however, what is remarkable is how closely their orbits align. Draw the solar system as you might view it from the top down—that is, perpendicular to the ecliptic, the plane on which the planets orbit. Neptune and all the planets within its orbit fit in a puny circle; Sedna and the other extreme Kuiper Belt objects fan out to one side, their near poles overlapping. View the solar system from the side and it’s clear that Sedna and its kin share their own ecliptic, tilted at an odd angle from, and crossing, the main one. In their 2014 paper, Trujillo and Shepard noted that the similar orbits of these objects suggest «that an unknown massive perturbing assets may be shepherding these objects into these similar orbital configurations.”

A little-noted fact about planets, and one inherent to their definition, is that they do stuff: they have sufficient mass and gravity to affect other objects in the solar system. As Brown and Batygin began to look more closely at the alignment of Sedna, 2012 VP113. and the rest, they, too, began to think that a larger organizing force might be at work. “We commenced scraping our goes,” Brown said. “And after a long analysis, a year and a half of back-and-forth, we realized that the response is—and we can’t come up with any other answer—that there’s a giant planet that is sculpting the orbits of these objects, forcing these objects into this one particular location. This one giant planet that’s very far away, in the very distant part of the solar system.” The probability that the alignment occurred randomly, they calculated, was 0.007 per cent. “That’s not exactly a good gamble,” Batygin said.

At very first, the pair envisaged a planet whose orbit encircled Sedna and the aligned objects, as a shepherd might its flock. (Astronomers refer to this model as “secular perturbation theory.”) But computer simulations made it clear that that arrangement didn’t explain the observable data. “We almost gave up,” Batygin said. Instead, they posited a more interventionist prime mover: a giant planet on an eccentric orbit that crosses the objects’ orbits but is aligned against them, sending the planet far off in the opposite direction. This arrangement, too, seemed too peculiar to be real. But it permitted for a prediction: if there truly was a planet with the size and orbit they had calculated, there should be a puny class of Kuiper Belt objects in its path that have been tilted on their sides. A quick search through the data sets of the Minor Planet Center, at Harvard University, exposed precisely these objects, located precisely where they should be.

Courtesy Caltech / R. Hurt (IPAC)

“I didn’t expect we’d be able to both make a prediction and, within five minutes, confirm our prediction,” Brown said. “This was the moment for me when I went from thinking, This is a joy project and, gee whiz, it might even be true, to thinking, Holy cow, I actually think there’s indeed a distant eccentric perturber, or Planet Nine, actually out there.”

I asked Brown whether “planet” was the right word for it. “It is a planet—there’s virtually no doubt,” he said. “What we now call planets are objects that can gravitationally predominate their neighborhood. Pluto is a sub to the gravitational influence of Neptune. By area, Planet Nine predominates more of the solar system than any other known planet—it’s only because of this that we can infer its existence. And because of this we’re pretty sure it’s not a puny object: it’s at least ten times more massive than Earth and five thousand times more massive than Pluto. In many ways, you could argue that this is more of a planet than anything else in the solar system.»

Beyond Neptune How astronomers found a faraway planet.

Brown and Batygin strongly suspect that Planet Nine is a relic of the earliest days of the solar system. In the beginning, more than four billion years ago, our sun was one of many starlets incubating in an interstellar nursery, a nebula of dust and gas. Eventually, all but one of the starlets wandered off, and when the very first planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—were forming, a residue of the nebula remained. At very first these planets were just cores of ice and rock, perhaps ten times the mass of Earth, but Jupiter and Saturn quickly grew into gas giants. But there were likely more than just four cores. Planet Nine may be a failed one; perhaps, early on, it ventured too close to the other planets and was threw by their gravity into the distant reaches of the solar system. “If it’s out there, it’s almost certain to be a fifth member of the Jupiter-Saturn-Uranus-Neptune quartet,” Laughlin said.

Ice giants like Planet Nine are prevalent via the galaxy; lacking such an object, our solar system had begun to seem anomalous. Brown and Batygin’s discovery switches that. “The most common type of planet in the universe is one we don’t know anything about, because we don’t have it in our solar system,” Brown said. «And yet we do have it—we just didn’t know it.” Laughlin said, “If it’s truly out there, it’s an enormous big deal. It’s a world that is fundamentally unlike any we have for close-up inspection, but very representative of the kind that galaxies are very good at making.”

Of course, no one has seen it yet. “I do actually think this will be found in, I hope, under five years,” Brown said. “No matter where it is in its orbit, it’s within range of telescopes on Earth.” If Planet Nine is near its closest treatment to the sun, it would be faintly visible with many fledgling telescopes—but it also likely would have been discovered by now. At its farthest, only one or two telescopes, including the Subaru Telescope, on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, are capable of eyeing it. One reason for publishing the paper, Brown said, was to attempt to speed the planet’s discovery. “We’re handing people a treasure map and telling, ‘Go look here,’ so I think there will be a lot of people searching. The probability that we’re the ones who find it isn’t high. I’m a little sad about that; I’d love to be the one that detects that. At same time, I just … I want to see it. I want to know it’s there.”

Brown told me that one of the most gratifying aspects of the project was his interchange with Batygin—wandering into each other’s offices, writing equations, drawing pictures, running simulations, pressing to bridge the gap inbetween theory and observation. “It’s been intense,” he said. “It’s been delightful. Sometimes he’s off somewhere and I sit here in my office thinking, like, When is he going to come in? When is he going to come in? Then as soon as he walks in, I go into his office and go blah blah blah, and he does the same thing to me. And … I think it all worked. I think we got it all figured out.”

On the day before the press announcement on Planet Nine, Laughlin told me that he was feeling jumpy. “I’m worried whether it’s out there,” he said. “This morning, I was having trouble focussing on the task at palm. My thoughts were being drawn to this massive, frigid object in the outer solar system that might or might not be there.” He added, “I believe there’s a 68.Three per cent chance that it’s there. That’s the ideal frustratingly plausible yet not-assured chance. It’s ideally tuned for maximum mystery and a heightened sense of possibility.” Do we not all feel the tug of some distant, eccentric perturber? Give it a name: God, mathematics, a parent, a child; the search for truth, or peace, or beauty. “We haven’t seen it,” Brown said of Planet Nine. “But we have felt it.”

Alan Burdick, a staff writer, joined The Fresh Yorker in 2012. He is the author, most recently, of “Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation .”

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