Friday, January 23, 2015

Two more planets for our solar system?

Time now again for Science Friday.

There is another planet out in space. Maybe two.

We're not talking about exoplanets, but rather two additional ones right here in our solar system.They may exist beyond the orbits of Pluto and may be larger (perhaps even ten times more massive) than Earth. Why this conjecture? Well, it has to do with analysis of what are termed "Extreme Trans-Neptunian ObjectS" (ETNOS). There are 13 ETNOS, including the dwarf planet, Sedna, that have been studied. The orbits of these bodies are different from as they should be according to mathematical projections.

"This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the ETNOs, and we consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto," the astronomical study's lead author Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, of the Complutense University of Madrid, said in a statement.

"The exact number is uncertain, given that the data that we have is limited, but our calculations suggest that there are at least two planets, and probably more, within the confines of our solar system," he added.

This is quite a big deal for astronomy. Seriously, I'm actually kind of finding it mindblowing. I must admit that I never considered it likely that we would ever find more planets right here in our own solar system. Many of us grew up knowing there were nine planets. This changed a few years back as Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet" status, relegating it to a classification similar to Ceres and Sedna. Now, shortly after kicking one out of the "planet" class, we may be welcoming two more back in. It certainly has played havoc with mnemonic devices we grew up with to memorize planet names (or at least those who weren't geeks and pored over junior science books.) Despite this promise of fantastic news, however, there is reason to be cautious.

The perturbations in ETNOs behavior might not be due to the presence of other large planetary bodies. Sedna and others might have been pushed out by the influence of other stars in the Sun's birth cluster. It's too soon to be definitive yet and further analysis is needed. The signs at this point, however, are at least intriguing.

So what will we name these new planets? Maybe just "Planet X" for one of them as an additional planet has long been theorized. I'll let Godzilla get all excited about that one.

Oh and I'm not even touching Nibiru.

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