Daily Archives: May 17, 2012
An as yet undiscovered planet might be orbiting at the dark fringes of the solar system, according to new research
Richard A. Lovett in Timberline Lodge, Oregon
for National Geographic News
Published May 11, 2012
Too far out to be easily spotted by telescopes, the potential unseen planet appears to be making its presence felt by disturbing the orbits of so-called Kuiper belt objects, said Rodney Gomes, an astronomer at the National Observatory of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
Once considered the ninth planet in our system, the dwarf planet Pluto, for example, is one of the largest Kuiper belt objects, at about 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) wide. Dozens of the other objects are hundreds of miles across, and more are being discovered every year.
What’s intriguing, Gomes said, is that, according to his new calculations, about a half dozen Kuiper belt objects—including the remote body known as Sedna—are in strange orbits compared to where they should be, based on existing solar system models. (Related: “Pluto Neighbor Gets Downsized.”)
The objects’ unexpected orbits have a few possible explanations, said Gomes, who presented his findings Tuesday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Timberline Lodge, Oregon.
“But I think the easiest one is a planetary-mass solar companion”—a planet that orbits very far out from the sun but that’s massive enough to be having gravitational effects on Kuiper belt objects.
Mystery Planet a Captured Rogue?
For the new work, Gomes analyzed the orbits of 92 Kuiper belt objects, then compared his results to computer models of how the bodies should be distributed, with and without an additional planet.
If there’s no distant world, Gomes concludes, the models don’t produce the highly elongated orbits we see for six of the objects.
How big exactly the planetary body might be isn’t clear, but there are a lot of possibilities, Gomes added.
Based on his calculations, Gomes thinks a Neptune-size world, about four times bigger than Earth, orbiting 140 billion miles (225 billion kilometers) away from the sun—about 1,500 times farther than Earth—would do the trick.
But so would a Mars-size object—roughly half Earth’s size—in a highly elongated orbit that would occasionally bring the body sweeping to within 5 billion miles (8 billion kilometers) of the sun.
Gomes speculates that the mystery object could be a rogue planet that was kicked out of its own star system and later captured by the sun’s gravity. (See “‘Nomad’ Planets More Common Than Thought, May Orbit Black Holes.”)
Or the putative planet could have formed closer to our sun, only to be cast outward by gravitational encounters with other planets.
However, actually finding such a world would be a challenge.
To begin with, the planet might be pretty dim. Also, Gomes’s simulations don’t give astronomers any clue as to where to point their telescopes—”it can be anywhere,” he said.
No Smoking Gun
Other astronomers are intrigued but say they’ll want a lot more proof before they’re willing to agree that the solar system—again—has nine planets. (Also see “Record Nine-Planet Star System Discovered?”)
“Obviously, finding another planet in the solar system is a big deal,” said Rory Barnes, an astronomer at the University of Washington. But, he added, “I don’t think he really has any evidence that suggests it is out there.”
Instead, he added, Gomes “has laid out a way to determine how such a planet could sculpt parts of our solar system. So while, yes, the evidence doesn’t exist yet, I thought the bigger point was that he showed us that there are ways to find that evidence.”
Douglas Hamilton, an astronomer from the University of Maryland, agrees that the new findings are far from definitive.
“What he showed in his probability arguments is that it’s slightly more likely. He doesn’t have a smoking gun yet.”
And Hal Levison, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, says he isn’t sure what to make of Gomes’s finding.
“It seems surprising to me that a [solar] companion as small as Neptune could have the effect he sees,” Levison said.
But “I know Rodney, and I’m sure he did the calculations right.”
by Carl Johan Calleman, IMU Professor
So many persons have sent me questions about the latest news that the “oldest Mayan Calendar has been found” that that I feel a comment is in its place:
Has the world’s oldest Mayan calendar been found?
In my view this report is typical of how the media today are working. First, for several years the big media like Hollywood and History Channel are generating the idea that so called end of the Mayan calendar means the end of the world. This is what has shaped the ideas among people in general and a stupid discussion on this topic has been brought to the Internet. After having successfully accomplished this disinformation the media instead take the opposite role and pretend to be the rational and wise debunkers of this idea, while it was the same “media world” that had generated the idea in the first place. In this way they are able to keep the discussion centered on the question whether the world is coming to an end when the calendar does.
Serious students of the Mayan calendar of course know that it has nothing to do with the end of the world. This is just an idea that the big media have created to prevent people from learning about the calendar’s true meaning and social and political implications. It seems that in the mind of those having written this press release the Mayan calendar means nothing if it does not mean the end of the world:
Is this then such a dramatic finding as the release seems to indicate? Is this the oldest Mayan calendar in the world? Judging from the article’s abstract it is an interesting finding of a wall with astronomical tables from around AD 800 and it can with some truth be called the oldest Mayan astronomical table. Then the emphasis should be very strongly on the word table. Because everyone, the authors of this article included, knows that the calendar is much older than this and it is simply misleading sensationalism to make it sound that it is an old calendrical inscription. Most likely it was the people writing the press release that thought they should twist the news to make it sound juicy, since in terms of the Classical Mayan culture it is not an old inscription at all, but very late.
To give some perspective on this the oldest tzolkin inscription is from 550 BC and the oldest Long Count date is from 36 BC, or in other words about a thousand years earlier than this wall painting. In fact AD 800 is when the collapse of the Classical Mayan culture began and their calendar system from a metaphysical perspective started to deteriorate. So what is the big fuzz? Well, it seems to be a nice archeological finding, but from the perspective of those that look upon the Mayan calendar as a description of the evolution of consciousness it is of no consequence.
Carl Johan Calleman
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