Hell Planet Nine

 

Is there a ninth planet lurking beyond the orbit of Neptune?

Astronomers have been observing strange gravitational patterns of a cluster of bodies known as “trans-Neptunian objects,” or TNOs, that could be explained by the presence of  massive ninth planet in our solar system. The hypothetical planet, dubbed “Planet Nine,” would orbit our star at hundreds of times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

It’s been a contentious topic, with some writing off the odd behavior of TNOs as being caused by a cluster of much smaller space rocks. Others predict that such a planet would be five times the mass of the Earth, orbiting our star at about 400 times the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

Finally, there’s the possibility that Planet Nine is actually a teeny-tiny black hole left over from the Big Bang. So tiny, in fact, that it’d only measure about five centimeters across — basically impossible to see with any kind of telescope.

“There has been a great deal of speculation concerning alternative explanations for the anomalous orbits observed in the outer solar system,” explained Amir Siraj, a Harvard undergraduate student, in a statement. “One of the ideas put forth was the possibility that Planet Nine could be a grapefruit-sized black hole with a mass of five to 10 times that of the Earth.”

So which is it then? In a new paper accepted into the The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Siraj, alongside a team of astronomers from Harvard University and the Black Hole Initiative outlined a newly developed method that could hopefully answer that question once and or all.

Their plan is to look for accretion flares given off as the tiny black hole gobbles up matter surrounding it. If they find some, it’d mean that Planet Nine is actually a black hole. “In the vicinity of a black hole, small bodies that approach it will melt as a result of heating from the background accretion of gas from the interstellar medium onto the black hole,” Siraj said.

“Because black holes are intrinsically dark, the radiation that matter emits on its way to the mouth of the black hole is our only way to illuminate this dark environment,” added Avi Loeb, professor of science at Harvard who was also involved in the research.

The team is placing their bets on the upcoming Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) mission taking place at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. Astronomers involved in the mission are hoping to answer questions about the nature of dark energy and dark matter as well as the formation and properties of planets in our solar system.

“LSST has a wide field of view, covering the entire sky again and again, and searching for transient flares,” Loeb said. “Other telescopes are good at pointing at a known target, but we do not know exactly where to look for Planet Nine. We only know the broad region in which it may reside.”

According to Loeb, the LSST’s “unprecedented depth” will be able to spot even the smallest of flares.

It’s not the only attempt to uncover the mysteries behind Planet Nine. Most recently, a different team of astronomers announced it’s hoping to launch a fleet of thousands of “nanospacecraft” to search for the mysterious object.

Unfortunately, that vision is still a moonshot, with cost estimates breaking the $1 billion mark — that is, if it’s even feasible from a technological standpoint in the first place.

READ MORE: Scientists propose plan to determine if Planet Nine is a primordial black hole [Harvard]
More on Planet Nine: A Black Hole May Be Orbiting Our Sun. This Guy Wants to Find It.

Extremely Earth-Like Exoplanet

 

It’s the most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature out of the thousands of exoplanets discovered by Kepler.

“This intriguing, distant world gives us even greater hope that a second Earth lies among the stars, waiting to be found,”  Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, who was not part of the research, said in a statement.

The exoplanet, called Kepler -1649c, orbits its small red dwarf star within the system’s habitable zone, a distance at which rocky planets receive enough star radiation to allow for liquid water to exist. It’s almost precisely the same size as large as Earth and receives 75 percent of the amount of light Earth receives from the Sun.

In other words, it’s a distant world that’s likelier than many others to support life. At 300 light-years from Earth, it’s the most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature out of the thousands of exoplanets discovered by the Kepler space telescope, according to the researchers.

But plenty of questions remain before we can definitively say that the planet is capable of supporting life. For one, we don’t know what its atmosphere looks like — the key determinant of the planet’s surface temperature.

The team made the discovery while re-analzying older observations from NASA’s now-retired Kepler space telescope program. Kepler -1649c orbits its star at an extremely short distance — a full revolution takes only 19.5 Earth days — alongside a similarly sized rocky planet that orbits at half the distance of Kepler-1649c.

“Out of all the mislabeled planets we’ve recovered, this one’s particularly exciting — not just because it’s in the habitable zone and Earth-size, but because of how it might interact with this neighboring planet,” Andrew Vanderburg, researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the paper published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, said in the statement.

The two rocky planets orbit their host star at an exact ratio: Kepler-1649c completes nine orbits in almost exactly the same time the inner planet completes four orbits. The researchers believe this could make the system extremely stable over a long period of time.

“The more data we get, the more signs we see pointing to the notion that potentially habitable and Earth-size exoplanets are common around these kinds of stars,” said Vanderburg.

“With red dwarfs almost everywhere around our galaxy, and these small, potentially habitable and rocky planets around them, the chance one of them isn’t too different than our Earth looks a bit brighter,” he added.

READ MORE: New Earth-sized planet found in habitable sweet-spot orbit around a distant star [TechCrunch]
More on exoplanets: Bizarre Exoplanet Might Be a Gas Giant That Lost its Gas