We Know you’re out There Planet X

No, we don’t.

But we think it needs to be out there, or the behavior of several distant objects becomes difficult to explain. So, come on, show your planetary disk.

Astronomers have been looking for it since 2014, after astronomers Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo suggested another planet existed way beyond Neptune. This planet needs to be around 10x Earth’s mass.  Why did they come up with this hypothesis?

Sheppard and Trujillo were nitpicking. No, not picking an argument apart using questionable details, they were looking for and tracking tiny bodies in the outer Kuiper Belt. Dwarf planet Pluto lives in the innermost part of the Kuiper Belt, so this tells you how far out they were searching.

Their survey turned up what appeared to be an anomaly. Beyond a certain distance in the Kuiper Belt, objects were crossing the ecliptic (the planets orbital plane around our Sun) as they made their closest approach to the Sun. This seemed too orderly. Why should these objects in the outer Kuiper Belt behave as though under the influence of a larger object? So, they suggested maybe they are under the influence of a larger object. If not, they should have orbits that evolve over time under the influence of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Their orbits should be more random in nature, not so organized.

Several teams of astronomers have done surveys, using different methods and equipment. No smoking gun yet. Part of the lack of confirmatory evidence is these teams’ used methods designed to look at things not necessarily consistent with Kuiper Belt object surveys. Only one method, the Outer Solar System Origins Survey, gave maybe a little support, but it’s inconclusive at best. Sheppard and Trujillo have teamed up with astronomer David Tholen and continue to survey, using the Subaru telescope in Hawai’i and the Victor M. Blanco telescope in Chile. Their data is encouraging but still insufficient.

What everyone seems to agree on is more and better data needs to be gathered. Another survey, the DECam Ecliptic Exploration Project is in its 3rd year of operation and the hope is it will eventually log more than 5,000 new Kuiper Belt Objects and maybe clarify the situation.

A new telescope under construction in northern Chili could be the answer. The Vera Rubin Observatory is scheduled to see first light in 2024 and will spend at least 10 years sweeping the night sky every few days. It is expected to log as many as 40,000 new Kuiper Belt Objects and their orbits. The Vera Rubin Observatory might be the key to finding out whether planet X exists, or not.

What suspense!

What’s in the Sky?

The pre-dawn east-southeast-south sky continues to dominate with an extended planet line-up. Soon Mercury will join at the lower left of Venus, Uranus, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, and Saturn. Uranus and Neptune need binoculars or telescope to see.