By David Rosen & Eric Francis Coppolino
It’s not every day that a new planet announces its existence, but that depends on what you mean by planet. Moons, asteroids, centaurs, comets and dwarf planets are discovered relentlessly. Nearly a million are known and catalogued, all objects orbiting our Sun. The great majority have been spotted since 1992. We live in an age of discovery.
This week something special happened: a team of astronomers headed by Mike Brown, the guy who brought us Eris and got Pluto reclassified, published a paper he co-authored, asserting that there’s a large thing — potentially the remnant core of a now-gone gas giant planet similar to Jupiter — orbiting our Sun in what may be a 20,000-year cycle.
People have speculated about this for a long time. If you’re familiar with the work of Barbara Hand Clow, she frequently mentions the theories of Zecharia Sitchin (1920-2010), who referred to ancient Sumerian tablets that he said illustrated the existence of a large, distant planet orbiting the Sun, unknown to modern scientists. Clow calls this Nibiru. You can read one version of that myth here; there is more in her most famous book, Chiron: Rainbow Bridge.
In a paper published on Wednesday in The Astronomical Journal, Brown and a colleague laid out a detailed and compelling case pointing to the existence of a previously undiscovered planet lurking at the far edges of our solar system. If it exists, it’s located way beyond the Kuiper Belt (where Pluto is) in the distant reaches of what’s called the Scattered Disk, a region of planets that seem to be scattered by the presence of some other larger object.
And now there seems to be sufficient evidence to point to that thing, or one such thing. The two astronomers who authored the paper — Michael E. Brown and Konstantin Batygin, both professors at Caltech — have inferred its existence based on the available evidence, an understanding of interstellar physics and a lot of math. They noted patterns in the known orbits of much smaller objects in the Scattered Disk; they say these orbits have been stretched by the gravity of this large object. Brown and Batygin have not seen the thing, but they say that physical evidence is pointing in its direction. So this is not a discovery — it’s evidence that might point to one.
Brown and a group of astronomers including David Rabinowitz and Chad Trujillo make up one of the leading discovery teams in astronomy history. They discovered Sedna (in 2003) and Eris (in 2005) orbiting in a distant region of the solar system. Thanks to co-discovering Eris, Brown was the primary astronomer responsible for the 2006 reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet. He’s a leading authority in planetary surveying and has a record of big finds, which is why the scientific community and the press are taking his research so seriously.
The research itself may be impenetrable to anyone without a Ph.D. in astrophysics, but what Brown and Batygin have found is actually quite simple. Some unseen force appears to be pulling Sedna and five other small Kuiper belt objects out of their expected orbit.
Other than Sedna, none of these objects have non-technical names, but several of them are large enough that they might eventually be reclassified as dwarf planets.
What’s telling is that these objects are all being pulled in the same direction. They all have similar elliptical orbits that are roughly perpendicular to the orbital plane of nearly everything else in our solar system. The odds of this happening purely by chance are estimated to be about one in 15,000, Brown and company say. Far more likely is that the gravity of an undiscovered planet is responsible for pulling these objects into their otherwise inexplicable orbits.
This predicted world, given the project code name “Planet Nine,” has yet to be observed in a telescope. But now, the race is on to find it. And thanks to the calculations done by Brown and Batygin, astronomers have a pretty good idea of where to look and what to expect when they find this strange new world.
The planet will have around 10 times the mass of the Earth. It is most likely to be around four to six times the Earth’s size, but could plausibly be as big as Neptune.
It will orbit between 20 to 100 billion miles from our Sun, with an orbital cycle that might be 20,000 years or longer (Sedna takes 11,000 years), and a perihelion located outside the orbit of Neptune. The planet itself is likely to be the remnant core of a gas giant — what would be left if Jupiter or Saturn lost all of their hot air.
Like the other classical planets, the mystery planet likely formed in the inner regions of the solar system, but was ejected when the solar system was between three and 10 million years old. Indeed, previous research has supported the theory of an ejected gas giant, whose existence may be necessary to account for the modern orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
If the planet is anything like what the Caltech scientists expect to find, its status as a classical planet will be impossible to contest. Ironically, its properties and behavior will mean that it fits the contemporary definition of a planet even better than the classical planets do, despite its distant location and unconventional orbit. And once the planet is observed — which could happen any day now — it’s going to need a name.
Conversations about the name for a planet that has yet to even be discovered may seem premature to some. But once the planet is found, the naming question is going to be resolved in the blink of an eye. The chances are that Brown already knows what he wants to call it. If not, the astrology community has a rare opportunity to contribute to the naming of an entire world, so we had better make it a good one. Notably, astrologers did assist in the naming of centaurs Nessus, Asbolus and Chariklo.
While there are some naming conventions for certain categories of planets, if this object is actually found, the discoverers will have free rein what to call it.
I would propose Janus. The month of January honors this two-faced (and sometimes four-faced) Roman deity. He was the god of beginnings and endings, of transitions and passageways, of doors and gates, of journeys and travels, of shipping and trade, of change, of time and of rites of passage. Janus was unique to Roman culture — he had no Greek precedent — and his name was often invoked in conjunction with other gods and goddesses.
Janus would be a fitting name for a world that has passed from the interior to the exterior of our solar system; for a world that lives near the boundary between our celestial home and the unending cosmos beyond.
Its discovery will come at a time when our own world is in constant transition from one state into the next — a time when some doors seem to be closing forever while new ones are opening to take their place…an age of endings and new beginnings.
And isn’t that what this is really all about? The idea that there are not just new planets out there in our own solar system, but whole new concepts of what and where planets might be? This would open up a whole new world of possibilities for astronomers and astrologers alike — an actual new world. Meanwhile, Brown and company are exceedingly good at finding things, and even though this section of the sky has been mapped recently and decreed planet-free, science is nothing if not the story of the impossible giving way to what is so.
Source: Planet Waves