Space

Planet Nine Could Be “A New Kuiper Belt” Scientists Say

According to researchers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, strange orbiting objects in the outer solar system may be caused by a new massive Kuiper Belt (likely including many small planets) rather than the recently theorized Planet Nine.

The new findings, put forth by researchers Ann-Marie Madigan and Michael McCourt at Harvard suggests “a new Kuiper Belt that’s far more massive than the current-day Kuiper Belt, at larger distances, and preferentially lifted off the plane of the major planets.” Their research is set to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Planet-Nine

An artist impression of Planet Nine. Image credit: Caltech, R. Hurt

The new Kuiper Belt explanation comes about a month after astronomers at the California Institute of Technology proposed the existence of a massive planet beyond Pluto dubbed Planet Nine, perhaps 5 to 15 Earth masses, taking up to 20,000 years to complete one orbit around the Sun. The planet wasn’t actually observed, but was inferred to exist by astronomers based on the strange orbital behavior of six known objects beyond Pluto.

While Madigan and her collegues acknowledge that the Planet Nine theory may be correct, their models point to a more likely scenario of a massive new Kuiper Belt. Their research suggest the Kuiper Belt-like disk could “self organize” as long as there is a lot of mass out there. Scientists think the belt would likely contain several minor planets.

It’s one thing both theories agree on – there has to be more mass out there in the outer solar system. There must be something shaping the strange orbits of these outer solar system objects.

Planet-Nine-2

The six known objects used in the original Cal-tech study, and the hypothetical orbit of Planet Nine. Image credit: Caltech/ R. Hurt

“We need more mass in the outer solar system,” Madigan said. “So it can either come from having more minor planets, and their self-gravity will do this to themselves naturally, or it could be in the form of one single massive planet – a Planet Nine. So it’s a really exciting time, and we’re going to discover one or the other.”

Astronomers are confident that the debate will be settled soon. Mike Brown, who lead the original Planet Nine research, said if there is a massive planet out there, we should be able to spot it with the SUBARU Telescope in Hawaii. In fact, he and his team plan to use SUBARU to look for Planet Nine in the first half of 2016. Madigan suggests large ground-based telescopes should be able to spot a distant Kuiper Belt as well.

I’m setting the unofficial over/ under for May 1st – either way it’s shaping up to be a landmark year in astrophysics and planetary science.

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