Over the past week, scientists have dropped several hints about a new planetary object based on the outskirts of our Solar System.
The ‘planetary mass object’ was spotted after researchers noticed its effect on the orbital planes of space rocks on the edge of our Solar System – Kuiper belt objects (KBO). While most KBOs orbit the sun with uniform orbital tilts, known as the invariable plane of the solar system, those discovered by researchers didn’t.
Lead author of the study, Dr Kat Volk had this to say: “The most likely explanation for our results is that there is some unseen mass. According to our calculations, something as massive as Mars would be needed to cause the warp that we measured.”
The Kuiper belt lies outside the orbit of Neptune, and extends to a few hundred Astronomical Units (AU) – one AU represents the distance between Earth and the Sun. Similar to the Astrid belt between Mars and Jupiter, it hosts a number of small icy bodies and a couple of dwarf planets.
Dr Volk and Professor Renu Malhotra analysed the orbital planes of over 600 objects in our solar system to determine the common direction in which these orbital planes precess.
Professor Malhotra said: “Imagine you have lots and lots of fast-spinning tops, and you give each one a slight nudge. If you then take a snapshot of them, you will find their spin axes will be at different orientations, but on average, they will be pointing to the gravitational field of Earth. We expect each of the KBOs’ orbital tilt angle to be at a different orientation, but on average, they will be pointing perpendicular to the plane determined by the sun and the big planets.”
The opportunity to confirm the findings will come once the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is built, which will all researchers to increase the number of KBOs observed. The telescope is set to go live in 2020
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