Saturday 30 December 2023

Did You Know?—The search for Planet X began in 1781: In 1972, NASA launched Pioneer 10 to search for a "mysterious 10th planet”: 2020 Caltech and NASA believes an enormous rogue planet just outside our solar system is pulling planets toward it

Planet X. . . Now known as Uranus and its moons are named after Shakespeare characters—Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Yesterday NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website published a picture of a very interesting distant world captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. The planet used to be known as "Planet X," however, we know it as Uranus.

I have always thought Planet X was a joke,  along with the likes of the flat-earthers, promoted by so-called conspiracy theorists, until I started researching the subject.

In 1972, NASA launched the space probe Pioneer 10, its main goal was to search for a "mysterious 10th planet” in our Solar System or just beyond.  (Pluto in those days was still considered a planet) This search led NASA to make a surprising press release 20 years later—Claiming, "unexplained deviations in orbits of Uranus (seen above) and Neptune, pointed to a large outer solar system body—This body was massive, "4 to 8" times our earth mass, on a highly tilted orbit, beyond 7 billion miles from the sun.

Planet X, or 9, is depicted as a dark sphere distant from the Sun with the Milky Way in the background. nagual design; Tom Ruen, background taken from File: ESO - Milky Way.jpg - Own work: Wikipedia.

For many decades, astronomers around the world have joined the search, looking for one more planet in our solar system. They named the elusive object, Planet X, meaning both unknown and 10. "Astronomers are so sure of the 10th planet they think there is nothing left but to name it." Ray T. Reynolds, NASA (NASA press release, 1992). But we have to go back even earlier to try and understand just what NASA is looking for.

In 1972, NASA launched the space probe Pioneer 10, its main goal was to search for a mysterious10th planet in our Solar System or just beyond—The famous press release 20 years later claimed that—Unexplained deviations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune pointed to a large outer solar system body 4 to 8 times earth's mass on a highly tilted orbit, beyond 7 billion miles from the sun. Ray T. Reynolds, NASA (NASA press release, 1992).

Why Does NASA Think It's There? The Kuiper belt, occasionally called the Edgeworth–Kuiper belt, is a circumstellar disc in the outer Solar System, extending from the orbit of Neptune to approximately 50 AU from the Sun (1 astronomical unit, ((AU)) is the distance of the Earth to our Sun). It is similar to the asteroid belt but is far larger – 20 times as wide and 20–200 times as massive according to Wikipedia. Astronomers studying the Kuiper Belt have noticed some of the dwarf planets and other smaller, icy objects tend to follow orbits that cluster together and have huge elongated orbits and appear to be pulled by a—'large planet'—on the edge of our solar system.

By analysing these orbits, NASA and the Caltech team, The California Institute of Technology predicted the possibility of a large, previously undiscovered planet which is probably hidden far beyond Pluto. They estimate the gravity of this potential planet might explain the unusual orbits of those Kuiper Belt objects. And of course, the unexplained deviations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune—However, the real story begins long before NASA and Caltech way back in time to 1781. 

William Herschel, a German astronomer built a groundbreaking telescope with a super clear lens which was state of the art for the time and with it, he stumbled on what he believed was a blurred star. On checking the blurred star the next day, he realised it had moved. Unwittingly he had found another planet in our solar system which he called “Planet X,” and was later named Uranus. Thirty-nine years later, a French astronomer, Alexis Bouvard, discovered irregularities in the orbit of Uranus and reasoned that 'another' planet was beyond Uranus, causing its irregular orbit. However, in 1840 no one knew just where the other planet was?

On September 23 1846, the planet Neptune was discovered. American astronomer, Percival Lowell realised Uranus and Neptune were not quite where they should be in their orbits around the Sun. Lowell decided another planet must be beyond Neptune which he then named, “Planet X.” Lowell, unfortunately, died in 1916, however,14 years later Planet X was officially discovered, (just where Lowell said it would be) and was named—Pluto. Years later Pluto was devalued as being the 9th planet of our solar system, it was too small to be a planet and was thought to be a large ice object from the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune.

What are NASA's thoughts on Planet X? (Back in 1992, Pluto was considered a planet, 13 years later it was declassified meaning Planet X would now have to be known as Planet 9 and not X, or 10). The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers have found mathematical evidence suggesting there may be a "Planet X" deep in the solar system. This hypothetical Neptune-sized planet orbits our Sun in a highly elongated orbit far beyond Pluto. The object, which the researchers have nicknamed "Planet Nine," could have a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbit about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than Neptune. It may take between 10,000 and 20,000 Earth years to make one full orbit around the Sun, according to NASA.

Interestingly, there are around 4,000 large objects in the Kuiper belt, beyond the orbit of Neptune. Pluto was the first object to be discovered as coming from the Kuiper Belt. In 2003 astronomers discovered a large object which had a highly unusual orbit which takes an incredible 10,000 years to orbit the Sun, this large object was called Sedna, according to Dr Michael Brown from Caltech. He claims Sedna’s elongated orbit around the Sun never comes near any of our giant planets and appears to have “pulled away” from our solar system which is highly strange—'Something' had to have pulled Sedna away from the Solar System. After the discovery of Sedna, other objects were found in the Kuiper belt all with massive elongated orbits and all appear to have been “pulled” away from the Sun in one direction as if something is pulling them away from the Solar System.

After developing supercomputer models, Caltech plotted the orbits of other strange objects with the same result, the Caltech team believed they were certain, that a large planet just outside our solar system is pulling these objects toward it. Caltech believes this rogue planet has a mass of around 6,000 times the size of Earth and is 500 times farther away from the Sun than our own planet with an eccentric orbit.

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