SoCal Brainiacs Discover a Friggin' Planet
File image/illustration from NASA
So, uh, what'd you accomplish last summer? Yeah, same here — nothing.
A pair of Caltech scientists, on the other hand, made a fairly good go of it. They only discovered a new friggin' planet in our solar system. They're calling it Planet Nine because it's the ninth known planet in the system.
The discovery was announced yesterday by Caltech. Research supporting the find was just published in the Astronomical Journal.
Caltech's Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown were looking at data that suggested the possibility of an undiscovered planet and honestly set out to disprove the notion.
"We were reluctant to invoke a distant planet in the solar system to explain the data we were seeing," Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science, told us. "We were making fun of our own hypothesis most of the time, not taking it too seriously."
Caltech explained in a statement that the planet was found "through mathematical modeling and computer simulations," and that it hasn't actually been seen yet.
"The computer model we put together kept on producing weird orbits in the Kuiper belt that were twisted on their side," Batygin said. "They were perpendicular to the solar system."
The two dug into archival data about a similar object and, voila, ended up proving, mathematically, the existence of Planet Nine, he said.
"We plotted up this data against our prediction [of a planet], and the data fell exactly where our computer model predicted it would be," Batygin said. "We fell back and said, "Wow, we're actually on to the real ninth planet here."
It happened one day in September on campus, he said. Batygin hauled his laptop over to partner Brown's office "to show him weird perpendicular orbits. ... The orbits don't fit into the framework of the solar system that we have."
The duo ran the numbers and concluded that those orbits could only be explained by one thing — a new planet. The thing is "the most intermediate planet" in terms of size "in our solar system," Batygin said.
"This was a spectacular moment when we realized everything fits in," he said. "It was like getting a solution to the Rubik's Cube."
Orbiting objects convinced researchers there's a new planet out there.
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To be fair, this is much bigger than solving a Rubik's Cube.
Batygin and Brown are resisting any impulse to name the planet after themselves.
"It's our overall belief that something as epic as a planet in the solar system shouldn't be left up to a couple of guys in SoCal to name," Batygin said. "It will stick for centuries to come. We will look for a broader effort in the future to decide what to name it."
For now, the duo is trying to see the thing through a telescope. They're employing the Subaru and one of two Keck telescopes at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii. (Caltech and the University of California developed the W.M. Keck Observatory at the complex.)
"We are actually in that stage of the project now that the theoretical calculations are more or less done," Batygin said. "Now we're in a state where we're going to the telescopes and looking for it. The sky is very, very big. The field of view of telescopes is quite small. So we need to narrow down the sky where it is and look for it that way."
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