Yesterday (Thursday 21 January) I was on BBC Radio talking about the possibility of their being a 9th planet in the Solar System (remember, in 2006 Pluto was demoted to being a minor-planet, leaving us with 8). If this suggestion is true, this would lead to our once again having to revise the list of planets that many of us
know knew by heart. It would not be the first time we have had to revise it, nor I suspect will it be the last.
The team’s argument is based on anomalies in the orbits of Kuiper belt objects. The Kuiper belt is a region beyond the orbit of Pluto which is the reservoir of short-period comets. I have blogged about the Kuiper belt before here. The authors of this new paper argue that some Kuiper belt objects are having their orbits disturbed by an unseen object, and they suggest that it is an object about ten times larger than Earth.It may come as a surprise to some of you that this is precisely the way that Neptune was discovered. After Uranus’ discovery by William Herschel in 1781, astronomers noticed that it was not orbiting exactly as it should. The simplest explanation was that its orbit was being affected by an unseen planet. Two mathematicians (Frenchman Urbain le Verrier and Englishman John Couch Adams) separately worked out where the disturbing object should be. There was a race on for astronomers to find the object, and the race was won by astronomer Johann Galle in 1846 working at the Berlin Observatory.
The existence of this new 9th planet is a long way from being proven. The anomalies in the orbits of the Kuiper belt objects is an example of something called a ‘many-body problem’. The gravitational influence of many objects, including the Sun, Jupiter, the other gas giants, as well as other Kuiper belt objects, all have to be calculated to see if there are any unaccounted for effects. This is a horrendously complicated problem, and I am sure this prediction by this team from Caltech will be challenged by others working in this area of research.