A new technique is set to hunt for Planet Nine, and it looks promising.
Humankind is eager to become an interplanetary species, but we must explore the solar system’s every corner to become one. Currently, humankind explores our cosmic neighborhood with the help of spacecraft, landers, and rovers; some spacecraft, like Voyager 1 and 2, have exited the solar system, becoming mankind’s first interstellar spacecraft heading into the unknown.
But we are far from exploring every corner in the solar system, which is pretty big. For example, if you were to travel to Neptune with our current technology, it would take around 12 years to get there.
As of 2006, Neptune is the eighth and last planet in the solar system from the sun, with Pluto having been demoted to a dwarf planet. But beyond Neptune—and Pluto—are more objects than we’ve ever imagined, and one such object is potentially a planet.
More specifically, it has been theorized for years that beyond the orbit of Neptune—and Pluto—is a still unidentified planet—Nine—whose gravity is messing around with the orbits of many objects within the so-called Kuiper Belt.
Although we have still not found conclusive evidence that such a planet exists, we have found hints of its existence. Theories that support the existence of a Ninth planet beyond the orbit of Pluto are backed by various studies, most of which are based on the curious, warped orbits of objects beyond Pluto; there seems to be something massive pulling on those planets.
Whether this “something” is a planet remains to be seen, but scientists seem to think so and continue searching for the hypothetical world.
Researchers from Yale University say that to find the enigmatic, elusive planet, we might need to pinpoint the faintest orbital trails in the darkest corners of space.
If such a world were to exist, scientists would finally be able to explain the unusual cluster of orbits of objects that have been categorized as extreme trans-Neptunian objects; cosmic bodies that orbit our Sun at an average distance of 250 times that of the Earth.
Yale researchers want to use a new technique to pinpoint the elusive world by gathering scattered light from thousands of space telescope images to identify previously unknown orbital pathways belonging to objects that have still not been detected by us.
Malena Rice, the lead author of the new study—set to be published in the Planetary Science Journal—and astronomer at Yale University, explained that “If Planet Nine is out there, it’s going to be incredibly dim.”
But why is planet nine so hard to find, despite our current technology allowing us to see distant exoplanets?
Most of the Sun’s light is reflected off the surface of the planets of our solar system. However, these planets are relatively close to our star. Planet Nine, on the other hand, is theorized to orbit the sun at a distance up to 23 times farther away from the Sun than Pluto. This, in essence, is very, very far, and means that light from the Sun doesn’t reach the world enough for it to reflect it.
If the elusive world is real, it is massive; astronomers estimate that planet nine is likely a super-Earth with a mass up to ten times that of the Earth, but despite its massive size, if the planet is located 27 times further away from the Sun than Neptune means it is nearly invisible to us, observing it from the Earth.
Finding planet Nine is no easy task, mostly because the region where it is hypothesized to exist is a region of the solar system we have not explored in detail.
However, despite the extreme distance at which the world likely exists, astronomers say that a technique called “Shifting and stacking” could help reveal the elusive planet.
In order to detect objects that are otherwise invisible, astronomers use the method by which they shift and stack images taken by a space telescope—in a similar fashion to moving a camera while taking a picture—along with pre-defined sets of possible orbital trajectories.
Scientists then proceed to “stack” hundreds of these images in order to reveal potential traces of light originating from the object.
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Source and reference: Yale