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Planet Nine and the Kuiper belt

In conjunction with a scientist from the University of Michigan, the Caltech team who originally coined the term Planet Nine in 2016 have written a new paper about its formation, and the subsequent layout of the outer solar system.  Having set out the evidence for this proposed object in the paper (1), they note three possible scenarios for its formation:

1)  The planet’s capture from the retinue of a passing star; or, alternatively, the capture of a free-floating interstellar planet

2)  The planet’s semi-ejection from the inner solar system and subsequent gradual drift outwards

3)  The planet’s formation in situ.

All three of these scenarios require certain conditions for them to work, which means that no single formation theory stands out as particularly probable.  The capture and scattering models depend upon the interjection of outside bodies (passing stars or brown dwarfs, or objects in the Sun’s birth cluster).  The in situ formation of a planet so far from the Sun implies that the Sun’s protoplanetary disk was significantly larger than generally accepted.  The formation of Planet Nine in its calculated position thus remains problematic, based upon standard models of planetary and solar system formation (e.g. the Nice model).  Further, whatever processes which placed it in its proposed current position would have significantly affected the layout of the Kuiper belt within its overarching orbit.  This factor is what the current investigation described by this paper aims to solve.

This paper then describes computer simulations of the early Kuiper belt, and how  the shape and extent of the fledgling belt may have affected the complex interplay between it, Planet Nine, and the objects in the extended scattered disk (1).  The research team modelled two distinct scenarios for the early Kuiper belt, each of which matches one or more formation scenarios for Planet Nine.  The first is a ‘narrow’ disk, similar to that observed:  The Kuiper disk appears to be truncated around 50AU, with objects found beyond this zone likely having been scattered outwards by processes which remain contentious.  The second scenario is a ‘broad’ disk, where objects in the Kuiper belt would have routinely populated the space between Neptune and the proposed orbit of Planet Nine, hundreds of astronomical units out.  This would match a formation scenario involving an extensive protoplanetary disk.  Read More…

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Planet Nine: Are They Digging in the Wrong Place?

Last month, scientists working on the Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS) published a large dataset of new Kuiper Belt Objects, including several new extended scattered disk objects discovered way beyond the main belt (1).  These four new distant objects seemed to have a more random set of properties, when compared to the rather more neat array of objects which had previously been constituted the Planet Nine cluster.  This led to scepticism among the OSSOS scientific team that there was any real evidence for Planet Nine.  Instead, they argued, the perceived patterns of these distant objects might be a function of observational bias (2).

Whilst reporting on these new discoveries and their potential implications, I predicted that the debate was about to hot up, bringing forth a new series of Planet X-related articles and papers (3).  Indeed, leading outer solar system scientists were publishing related materials in quick succession (4,5), each finding new correlations and patterns which might indicate the presence of an unseen perturbing influence.

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Now, Caltech’s Konstantin Batygin has published an article analysing the impact of the discovery of these new extended scattered disk objects on the potential for a Planet Nine body.  The short conclusion he draws is that although the objects are, on the face of it, randomly distributed, their property set is largely consistent with Caltech’s original thesis (6).  They are either anti-aligned to the purported Planet Nine body (as the original cluster is thought to be), or aligned with it in a meta-stable array.

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Interstellar Planet Formation

Continuing the discussion from last month’s blog about planetessimal-building conditions in space beyond the solar system’s heliopause boundary (1).  In my February paper, I discussed anomalous results which had come back from various space probes regarding the influx of large grain interstellar dust into the heliosphere (2).  More on this in a moment.  A correspondent of mine had noted similarities between what I had been writing about and previous work by Paul LaViolette, who had written about the origins of the dust picked up by the Ulysses spacecraft:

“I would suggest that the dust originates from a circumsolar dust sheath that is concentrated toward the plane of the ecliptic in a fashion similar to the disk girdling the star Beta Pictoris and that is co-moving with the Sun. Infrared observations confirm the existence of dust sheaths around other stars in the solar neighborhood, leading to the conclusion that our Solar System is similarly shrouded.” (3)

The 20 million year old star Beta Pictoris provides astronomers with the best example of a gas giant exoplanet found orbiting within an evolving proto-planetary disk, made all the more dramatic by its side-on view and the brightness of scattered light from the revolving disk:

“In 1984 Beta Pictoris was the very first star discovered to host a bright disc of light-scattering circumstellar dust and debris. Ever since then Beta Pictoris has been an object of intensive scrutiny with Hubble and with ground-based telescopes. Hubble spectroscopic observations in 1991 found evidence for extrasolar comets frequently falling into the star.” (4)

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Massive Planet X Now Urgently Sought by Top Planet-Hunters

We seem to be getting very close now to a discovery of a massive Planet X in the outer solar system.  I heard this report on the evening BBC news, a slot which indicates the seriousness with which this subject is now being taken by the scientific community:

“American astronomers say they have strong evidence that there is a ninth planet in our Solar System orbiting far beyond even the dwarf world Pluto.  The team, from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has no direct observations to confirm its presence just yet.  Rather, the scientists make the claim based on the way other far-flung objects are seen to move.  But if correct, the putative planet would have 10 times the mass of Earth.

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