Monday, March 14, 2016

Saturn, Cassini, and the search for Planet Nine

Is there a ninth planet beyond Neptune?

Yeah, yeah space purists from my generation and older still claim Pluto as a planet, but we are for now forced to accept the judgments of astronomers. Regardless, much speculation has been reignited as to the presence of another planet in our solar system, one ten times the size of Earth. Right now, the search for this Planet Nine, alternately called Planet X, is confined to telescopes and may or may not reveal something within five years. However, there might be another way. That being through math and measurements of Saturn gleaned from the Cassini probe.

Cassini has been studying the planet Saturn for quite a while now, sending back images of both the planet and its moons as well as data on Saturn's exact location at various times. These measurements may ultimately help provide indication of Planet Nine's existence...or nonexistence. We wouldn't feel it much on Earth, but the presence of a Planet Nine would affect the motion of the outer planets of the solar system. The massive bodies that are the outer planets exert force on one another. Their orbits are in part the consequence of this complex ballet of push, pull, and tug. It stands to reason that if there is indeed a Planet Nine, its presence should be evident in the motions of a planet such as Saturn. That's how Neptune was found in 1846.

Much of the same reasoning is currently being offered for Planet Nine. Two astronomers at Caltech say they have detected anomalous motions in objects of the Kuiper Belt. This is a zone at the far edge of the solar system that contains rocks, ice, and Pluto. A few different orbits for Planet Nine have been proposed, but it's all conjecture at this point. As it is with many things in science...or anywhere else these days it seems...the assertion is contentious. The poring over the data will likely take a few more years before anything definitive is yielded and even that might be stretching it.

What does the discovery of a ninth planet mean? To Joe Sixpack, not much. But then for him, what does make a difference aside from anything immediately affecting his kids, car, job, and house? Then again, he's not the "target audience" here, is he? To me, a Planet Nine would mean there are still discoveries awaiting us in the darkness of space. Big ones. It's a reminder that we don't have everything figured out just yet and it's unlikely that we ever will. After all, how could we have gone all this time and not detected it? It's a good hubris check. Of course I'm sure there are certain circles crying "Nibiru!"

As for Cassini, the probe will meet its demise in September of 2017. After a close flyby of the moon Titan it will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn.

Feel free to sing 1990's "Blaze of Glory" at any moment. I know you know the words.

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