A new 9th planet?

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There’s news today that some scientists predict the existence of a ninth planet. No one has actually found anything, but this is inferred from the orbits of certain icy objects in the outer Solar System. It may have 10 times the mass of the Earth, and take 10,000 or 20,000 years to orbit the Sun, due to its distance far beyond the known planets.Planet NineScientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) claim “Planet Nine” would have an orbit like the above (yellow) to account for the depicted handful of bodies (purple orbits) lying in one direction. They hope to detect it in the next 5 years. It’s not my area, and I have no opinion on this personally, but am happy to wait and see what consensus forms. Still, it’s an opportunity to share some history of planetary discovery.

Artist's conception of the hypothetical Planet Nine
Artist’s conception of the hypothetical Planet Nine

This has happened before. Neptune was discovered because of irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. Pluto was discovered by the same motivation. (Further irregularities in Neptune and Uranus’ orbits had led to a search. However it turned out Neptune’s mass had been overestimated, and besides Pluto was too small to affect these planets much.) Similarly the unexplained rotation of Mercury’s orbit led to speculation of a new innermost planet “Vulcan”, but just like the Star Trek planet it remains fictional. In fact Einstein successfully explained Mercury’s behaviour using an early version of general relativity.

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