It is well known that Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Manager, John Podesta, has more than a passing interest in Ufology (1). He has gone on record calling for UFO disclosure, and arguing that the American people can handle the truth (2). in the run-up to the U.S. Presidential election, WikiLeaks has made public thousands of Mrs. Clinton’s emails, including emails from Mr Podesta. Some of these emails contain references to UFOs and/or aliens, although it has been noted that some of these are simply chance references by association, or to make a point (3). Nevertheless, given John Podesta’s clear interest in the subject, some of these emails likely genuinely reflect his interest in UFOs and the possible existence of extra-terrestrial life. As we shall see, Hillary Clinton appears to share this unusual passion, and so arguably is likely to be ‘in the loop’ with her campaign manager’s personal interest in UFOs and related subjects.
Astronomers have announced the discovery of the third most distant object in the solar system, designated 2014 UZ224 (1). At a distance of 91.6AU, it is pipped to the title of ‘most distant solar system object’ by V774104 at 103AU (2), followed by the binary dwarf planet Eris at 96.2AU(3). The new scattered disk object lies approximately three times the distance of Pluto away, and may be over 1000km in diameter – potentially putting it into the dwarf planet range. Its 1140 year orbit is notably eccentric, which is becoming more expected than otherwise with this category of trans-Neptunian object.
The find is a fortunate byproduct of the Dark Energy Survey, which seems to be rather good at picking out these dark, distant solar system objects. It was first spotted in 2014, with follow-up observations which have firmed up its orbital properties, but clearly delayed the announcement of its existence until now. These follow-up observations were rather scatty over time, and so the Dark Energy team, led by David Gerdes of the University of Michigan, developed software to establish its orbital properties:
“”We often just have a single observation of the thing, on one night,” he says. “And then two weeks later one observation, and then five nights later another observation, and four months later another observation. So the connecting-the-dots problem is much more challenging.”” (4)
It’s a shame that data about this this object wasn’t released sooner, even if that had meant its orbital properties were more vague. Speculation is already rife within the planetary science internet community that 2014 UZ224 is a contender for the Planet Nine-perturbed cluster of scattered disk objects (5), enhancing the indirect evidence for a sizeable distant Planet X object still further. Mike Brown pointed out this early conjecture on his Twitter feed (6), which gives its some credibility, but I suspect we need to wait for some of the astrophysical dynamicists to churn out the data to see if that’s in fact the case.
Almost nine months after the release of their paper about the likely existence of Planet Nine (1), Drs Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin have secured a sizeable chunk of valuable time on the Subaru telescope, based in Hawaii. If they’re right about where it is, and luck is on their side, then they may detect the elusive planet within weeks. Brown and Batygin think they’ve narrowed it down to roughly 2,000 square degrees of sky near Orion, which will take approximately 20 nights of telescope time to cover with the powerful 8.2-meter optical-infrared Subaru telescope at the summit of Maunakea, Hawaii, which is operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (2). Mike Brown is quite gung-ho about it, as can be gleaned from these extracts from a recent interview with the L.A. Times:
“”We are on the telescope at the end of September for six nights. We need about 20 nights on the telescope to survey the region where we think we need to look. It’s pretty close to the constellation Orion…We’re waiting for another couple of weeks before it’s up high enough in the sky that we can start observing it and then we’re going to start systematically sweeping that area until we find it.
“”It makes me think of the solar system differently than I did before. There’s the inner solar system, and now we are some of the only people in the world who consider everything from Neptune interior to be the inner solar system, which seems a little crazy.”” (3)
Let’s hope they’re on the money. They have quite a lot to say about some of the correspondence that comes their way from members of what might loosely be termed ‘the Planet X community’.
Not so long ago, brown dwarfs (failed stars caught in an awkward in-betweener zone between stars and planets) were hypothetical bodies. Their low stellar masses allow for only a very short period of light-emission in their early years, after which they cool and darken considerably.
“[A] brown dwarf has too little mass to ignite the thermonuclear reactions by which ordinary stars shine. However, it emits heat released by its slow gravitational contraction and shines with a reddish colour, albeit much less brightly than a star.” (1)
It was recognised early on that if they existed at all, they would be very difficult to spot – and so it proved. In recent years, the ability to detect these objects has improved considerably, including more effective infra-red sky surveys. As they have become more common, the frontier of sub-stellar bodies has dropped in mass into the ultra-cool stellar bodies known as sub-brown dwarfs – many of which would equally properly be designated as rogue gas giant planets. These objects tend to have masses below 13 times that of Jupiter (13Mj) (2). These objects have always interested me greatly, and very early on in my own research efforts I was advocating the potential importance of sub-brown dwarfs in the hunt for additional planets orbiting our own Sun at great distances (3). I used the term ‘Dark Star’ to describe these ultra-cool objects; a term suggested by a friend of mine. Some can be found orbiting stars (usually beyond 50AU) while others are free-floating entities in their own right.
The two scientists, Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo, who first recognised the clustering of objects thought to reveal the presence of ‘Planet Nine’ (1), have announced the discovery of three new objects. All three are highly distant objects (2). Two of them are extended scattered disk objects beyond the traditional Kuiper Belt, and fit reasonably well into the afore-mentioned cluster. The third, perhaps even more amazingly, is an object whose elongated orbit reaches way out into the distant Oort Cloud of comets, but which also never comes closer than the planet Neptune. So, this is the first outer Oort cloud object with a perihelion beyond Neptune, designated 2014 FE72.
Here’s how the announcement of these three new objects has been described in a press release from the Carnegie Institution for Science (3), where Scott Sheppard works:
A couple of brown dwarfs have been discovered in a close binary system some 240 light years away, whose two stars circle each other at a distance of about 19AU, similar to that of Uranus around the Sun. The two new exoplanets orbit close to the primary Sun-like star HD 87646 (1). These two sub-stellar companions are HD 87646b, which is a minimum 12MJupiter sub-brown dwarf (a ‘hot Jupiter’-type exoplanet) orbiting every 13 days just 0.117AU from the star (2); and HD 87646c, which is a 57MJupiter brown dwarf circling the star every 673 days (1). The orbital eccentricity of the brown dwarf is greater than that of the inner sub-brown dwarf, which is in keeping with other observations of brown dwarfs orbiting stars.
Image Credit: Janella Williams, Penn State University
The international team that discovered this remarkable system is perplexed as to how it might have come about:
“Given the fact that HD 87646 is the first known system to have two massive substellar objects orbiting a star in a close binary and the masses of the two objects are close to the minimum masses for burning deuterium and hydrogen, these peculiarities raise questions about the system’s formation and evolution.
“”The large masses of these two substellar objects suggest that they could be formed as stars with their binary hosts: a large molecular cloud collapsed and fragmented into four pieces; the larger two successfully became stars and formed the HD 87646 binary, and the other smaller ones failed to form stars and became the substellar objects in this system. This scenario might be relevant for the binary stars but seems problematic for the two substellar objects on orbits within one AU because it is unclear whether fragmentation on such a small scale can occur,” the paper reads (1)
“Other hypothesis offered by the scientists is that the two newly discovered giant objects were formed like giant planet in a protoplanetary disk around HD 87646A. However, they added that such massive disks are rare in close binaries, and further investigation is needed to confirm this explanation.” (3)
August 2016 saw the announcement of the discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbourhood star – the red dwarf Proxima Centauri. The official press release was preceded by a leak to the German media from within the team of astronomers. Here, I tell the story of the rumours of the announcement, and the wider implications of the discovery itself:
Rumours of an Earth-like Planet Orbiting Proxima Centauri
The German magazine Der Spiegel has reported that a major announcement is imminent: there is an Earth-like planet orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri; the Sun’s closest stellar neighbour at 4.24 light years distance.
The magazine claims that the discovery was made by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) using the La Silla Observatory’s reflecting telescope in Chile, based upon a leak from an astrophysicist who has been working with the La Silla team (1). This alleged discovery is in keeping with the current work being carried out at La Silla, as described in January earlier this year:
“What good news that the Pale Red Dot project is now planning a two-month observing campaign to search for potential Earth-analogs around Proxima Centauri using HARPS, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher spectrograph at the ESO La Silla 3.6m telescope. Nightly monitoring began on January 18th.” (2)
A new Trans-Neptunian Object has been discovered whose quirkiness is breaking into new territory. This object, currently named ‘Niku’ after the Chinese adjective for ‘rebellious’, is seriously off-piste and heading in a highly inclined, retrograde motion around the Sun (1). Does this sound familiar? The retrograde motion is something which Zecharia Sitchin claimed for the rogue planet Nibiru. Niku…Nibiru. It sounds like the team who discovered this object, based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (2), are having a bit of fun with us. Rest assured, this is not Nibiru, or anything like it. That said, something in the past interacted with this object to fling it into its strange orbital path, and at the moment the identity of that strongly perturbing influence is a definitive ‘unknown‘.
Additionally, Niku’s discovery has prompted the astrophysics team to consider a new cluster of objects (high inclination TNOs and Centaurs) which appear to share the same orbital plane. This, in itself, is an unexpected and exciting development. Could the influencing factor be the mysterious Planet Nine (3)?
“…The new TNO appears to be part of another group orbiting in a highly inclined plane, so [Matthew] Holman’s team tested to see if their objects could also be attributed to the gravitational pull of Planet Nine. It turns out Niku is too close to the solar system to be within the suggested world’s sphere of influence, so there must be another explanation. The team also tried to see if an undiscovered dwarf planet, perhaps similar to Pluto, could supply an explanation, but didn’t have any luck. “We don’t know the answer,” says Holman.” (1)
The sizeable tilt of the proposed Planet Nine body could explain other unexplained features of the solar system as well as the observed clustering of extended scattered disk object beyond the Kuiper Belt. The Caltech astrophysics team who introduced the world to Planet Nine in January (1) think it may also explain the Sun’s six degree tilt with respect to the plane of the ecliptic (2). In addition, the presence of a distant, sizeable Planet X object, whose closest approach to the Sun is argued to be 250 Astronomical Units away (3), could be affecting the tilt of the entire planetary system orbiting the Sun.
“Using an analytic model for secular interactions between Planet Nine and the remaining giant planets, here we show that a planet with similar parameters can naturally generate the observed obliquity as well as the specific pole position of the sun’s spin axis, from a nearly aligned initial state. Thus, Planet Nine offers a testable explanation for the otherwise mysterious spin-orbit misalignment of the solar system.” (3)
The family of extended scattered disk objects beyond the classical Kuiper Belt just keeps getting bigger. The latest addition to this population of objects is a fairly substantial dwarf planet 700km across, currently referred to by the moniker 2015 RR245 (1). Its elliptical orbit is not absolutely defined as yet, but the best estimates give it an aphelion distance of about 120 Astronomical Units, and a closest approach to the Sun of about 34 AU (2). The Minor Planet Center describes the object as the 18th largest in the Kuiper Belt, but it is not yet clear what its surface features might include. 2015 RR245 takes approximately 700 years to orbit the Sun. 2015 RR245was discovered by National Research Council of Canada’s Dr J.J. Kavelaars while studying images taken by Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii in September 2015 .
Does this object fit in with Mike Brown’s analysis of the cluster of 6 (now 7) Sednoid objects which he argues (along with his dynamicist colleague Konstantin Batygin) point to the existence of a substantial planet beyond the Kuiper Belt (3)? Given the vague data regarding the orbit of 2015 RR245, it is perhaps too early to say. But other scientists are already citing the on-going discoveries of distant objects like 2015 RR245 as reasons to be cautious. In an informative on-line article, more nuanced than its title suggests, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel notes that the pattern of discovery of objects within and beyond the Kuiper Belt is subject to an observational bias favouring the closest objects. This means that the unknown populations of objects yet to be discovered may eventually statistically overwhelm the small populations of extended scattered disk objects and Sednoids already discovered. This, he argues, could bring Brown and Batygin’s analysis of the cluster into question.