Did NASA’s Cassini spacecraft just find ‘Planet Nine’?

Scientists searching for Planet Nine, a new ninth-planet believed to exist in the solar system, are now one step closer to pinpointing the location of this mysterious world thanks to evidence from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, a pair of planetary scientists from the California Institute of Technology who were instrumental in Planet Nine’s discovery back in January, theorized that the world exists based on the gravitational impact is has on multiple Kuiper Belt objects, and are now attempting to find additional proof of its existence, according to Scientific American.

While they have been focusing their efforts on analyzing archived photographs and searching for ways to observe the object using high-resolution, ground-based telescopes, their work received a big boost in recent weeks from Cassini, the NASA spacecraft orbiting Saturn.

As Scientific American explained, while the Caltech researchers suggest that Planet Nine would have a gravitational effect on Kuiper Belt object, it could also hypothetically create a pull on the planets, moons and, even spacecraft elsewhere in the solar system. Based on this notion, Agnès Fienga at the Côte d’Azur Observatory and her colleagues set out to determine whether the existence of this ninth planet could explain slight perturbations in Cassini’s orbit.

Location could be confirmed within the next three years

The researchers adapted a decade-old theoretical model to account for Planet Nine, and they used the updated model to see if it could account for the perturbations. Based on a series of tests, Fienga’s team found that a ninth planet located 90 billion kilometers (600 astronomical units) away in the direction of the constellation Cetus would effectively explain Cassini’s orbital irregularities.

While Fienga itself told Scientific American that she is not fully convinced that that Planet Nine is behind the spacecraft’s unusual movements, other researchers have applauded her work, with Lick Observatory astronomer Greg Laughlin calling it “a brilliant analysis” and David Gerdes, a cosmologist at the University of Michigan calling it “a beautiful paper.”

Gerdes, who is also on the hunt for Planet Nine, told the website that evidence “is mounting that something unusual is out there,” and he believes that if the object is indeed located in the vicinity of Cetus, then it could be detected by the Dark Energy Survey. Other researchers believe that this mysterious world could be located by searching for the millimeter-wavelength light it emits from its own internal heat.

If Planet Nine, which is believed to be 10 times more massive than Earth and orbits the sun at an average distance 20 times that of Neptune, truly does exist, “we will discover it in the next [few] years,” Dr. Dimitris Stamatellos, a Guild Research Fellow of Astrophysics with the University of Central Lancashire, told the Cyprus News Agency on Monday. “I am optimistic that if this ninth planet exists, it will be discovered in the next 2-3 years.”


Image credit: Tomruen/Wikimedia Commons