Located in the outer solar system, Planet Nine is a hypothetical planet. The gravitational attraction between it and extreme trans-Neptunian objects (ETNOs) could explain their peculiar orbital clustering, which averages more than 250 times the distance between Neptune and the Sun.
Mankind is still in its infancy when it comes to exploring outer space. Although we successfully landed on the Moon more than fifty years ago and sent robotic missions to distant planets such as Mars, we are yet to explore our solar system fully. One of the most asked questions about our cosmic neighborhood is how many planets there are. From what we know, there are eight planets, and lots of dwarf planets, with Pluto being one of the most distant. But what about beyond? Are there other planets beyond the orbit of Pluto?
Based on observations, there aren’t any more planets, but simulations and mathematical models tell otherwise. Located in the outer solar system, Planet Nine is a hypothetical planet. The gravitational attraction between it and extreme trans-Neptunian objects (ETNOs) could explain their peculiar orbital clustering, which averages more than 250 times the distance between Neptune and the Sun.
The orbits of these ETNOs are tilted similarly, and they tend to make their closest approaches to the Sun in a particular sector. There is a possibility that an undiscovered planet may oversee the solar system’s most distant objects by shepherding their orbits. It is one of the most discussed hypothetical planets in the solar system’s outer regions. A study by Florida Tech astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam illustrates how we might reach it.
According to the study, a journey to Planet Nine by unmanned means would take 45 to 75 years since the planet is believed to be located 42 billion miles from Earth. The distance between Pluto and Earth, which is the ninth object from the sun, is about three billion miles. A research team also explored nuclear thermal propulsion and laser sails as futuristic transportation methods. In order to reach Planet Nine using nuclear thermal propulsion, it would take an estimated 40 years. If laser sail propulsion is used to propel the vehicle, it would take only six to seven years to reach Planet Nine.
Usually, researchers use telescopes or send spacecraft to a planet to study it. Currently, telescopes can’t gather any data on Planet Nine, so this work also examined transportation methods to develop the tools necessary to learn more about Planet Nine, for example, its atmosphere (if it has one). This planet might be a miniaturized version of Neptune or a rocky planet like Earth. As for its origin, it is also up for debate whether it formed initially in the solar system or was captured by the Sun’s gravitational pull from somewhere else.
They used principles of orbital mechanics, also known as spaceflight mechanics, to conduct their research. Compiling the complex and nonlinear equations and solving them with optimization constraints was done on a computer.
According to Lingam, the latter means maximizing or minimizing some quantity as much as possible. “You might say, ‘Well, I want to minimize the flight time of the spacecraft as much as possible.’ So, what we did is that we put in an optimization constraint. In this case, it happens to be minimizing the time of journey. You solve the mathematical equations for a spacecraft with this condition, and then you end up with the results.”
A key goal of Lingam is to gain additional information about other worlds in our solar system, as he is inspired by the Voyager spacecraft missions from the late 1970s. In addition to Planet Nine, Voyager continues to provide valuable information about the outer solar system, despite the fact that its science instruments may not be able to operate by 2025.
Lingam added that any mission to Planet Nine would provide not only valuable information about that hypothetical planet, but also vital information about Jupiter, as some of these missions would be slingshots or powered flybys around Jupiter. You may also gain valuable information about the Sun because we also complete a maneuver around the Sun, which would result in lots of interesting data. In addition, the journey lasts the same amount of time as the Voyager spacecraft. In view of the fact that this is the first attempt at explicitly targeting Planet Nine using currently available technologies, much further research is needed on the relevant subsystems (e.g., telecommunications).
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