Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Planet Nine Hypothesis

Beginning in the 1990s, advances in astronomy allowed the detection of many extrasolar planets, adding thousands of the number known within two decades. However, apart from the reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet in 2006, the population of true planets in our Solar System did not change. Many, many other smaller objects were discovered, though.



Many of these smaller objects lay within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, or in the Kuiper Belt, just beyond Neptune's orbit. Eris, Haumea, and Makemake are other dwarf planets whose perihelia (closest approaches to the Sun) bring them within the Kuiper Belt, 30 to 50 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. However, an unusual object was discovered in 2003 whose orbital properties were quite different.



The object was later named Sedna and measures a little less than half the diameter of Pluto. Though the best images of it by telescopes are only a few pixels wide, it is clearly of a reddish color, nearly as red as Mars. The perihelion of this object was, at the time, the largest known in the Solar System, at 76 AU. However, it also has an extremely elongated orbit, bringing it to an aphelion (farthest point) of 936 AU! This orbit is shown in red above, compared to the orbits of the outer planets and Pluto (in pink). About a decade later, another object, provisionally designated 2012 VP113, was discovered with comparable orbital parameters, except with a slightly farther perihelion of 80 AU and an aphelion of 438 AU. The scarcity of known objects of this type is not only a consequence of their distance, however.



This scatterplot, published in a paper by astronomers Chadwick A. Trujillo and Scott S. Shephard, shows the perihelia and eccentricities (a measure of the "elongatedness" of an elliptical orbit; a perfect circle has an eccentricity of 0) of various objects outside Neptune's orbit. Curiously, there is a clear drop-off at around 50 AU, with only a few known objects beyond. Notably, there is also a gap between 55 and 75 AU. This gap is not only an artifact of our telescopes being insufficiently powerful: Sedna and 2012 VP113 were detected farther out, so if there were objects in this gap they should have been easier to find. The high eccentricity of Sedna and 2012 VP113, as well as the existence of this gap, aroused suspicion that a massive object may have gravitationally perturbed the trajectories of objects in this region, illustrated in the image below.

The same paper indicated another unusual feature of the population of these farthest known objects.


The horizontal direction indicates the semi-major axis of each object (yet another measure of the size of an orbit; however, it is closely related to the two discussed previously: it is simply the average of the perihelion and the aphelion). The vertical variable on the scatterplot is the argument of perihelion, which is simply the angular position around the orbit of the orbit's perihelion (relative to where it crosses the plane of the Solar System). All known objects whose semi-major axes exceed 150 AU have arguments of perihelion all clustered roughly around 0°. In the eight-planet Solar System model, this should not be the case: gravitational perturbations from the gas giants would randomize the arguments of perihelion over millions of years. However, a large planetary body orbiting well beyond the known planets could constrain the arguments of perihelion. This led to the hypothesis of a new planet, nicknamed Planet Nine.

The above image shows the orbits of many of the same objects represented by dots to the right of the black line in the scatterplot. Note how in addition to the clustering trend noted above, the perihelia are also all on the same side of the Sun. The figure also shows where Planet Nine would possibly orbit given the positioning of those objects. The story of the Planet Nine hypothesis continues in the next post.

Sources: http://home.dtm.ciw.edu/users/sheppard/pub/TrujilloSheppard2014.pdf, http://www.aoi.com.au/bcw1/Cosmic/Sedna-PIA05569-sml.jpg