Sunday, March 26, 2017

More Evidence for Planet Nine

For the first post in this series, which explains the motivation for the Planet Nine hypothesis, click here.

The previous post touched on some ways in which the orbits of certain outer Solar System objects are similar. These may be quickly summarized in the following way: both the arguments and longitudes of the objects' perihelia are unusually clustered around certain values.



The above image shows numerous relevant parameters concerning the position of an orbit. In the case of orbits in the Solar System, the plane of reference is the plane of the Earth's orbit and the Sun, also known as the ecliptic. The reference direction often used for heliocentric objects is called the First Point of Aries, defined as the position of Earth's vernal equinox and so named for its location within the constellation Aries. The ones with which we are concerned here are the argument of periapsis ω (this is the general name for argument of perihelion to include non-heliocentric objects) and the longitude of the ascending node Ω. The sum of these two angles is called the longitude of perihelion because it measures the angle between the perihelion and the reference direction. In summary, the similarity in the arguments of perihelion indicates that the members of the relevant population of objects have similar orientations with respect to the plane of the Solar System, while the similarity in the longitudes indicates a clustering of these orbits in space.

A 2016 paper by Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown ran a statistical analysis of these parameters for the six most extreme known trans-Neptunian (beyond Neptune) objects. Since they were discovered by a number of distinct observational surveys, the possibility of observational bias was dismissed. The analysis found that the clustering of the objects had only a 0.007% probability of occurring by chance. This suggested that another explanation was in fact required for the phenomenon. Further simulations suggested that a Planet Nine could account for the observations, provided that it have the required heft: at least around 10 Earth masses (or, equivalently, 5000 Pluto masses). In comparison, all the previously known trans-Neptunian objects put together weighed much less than a single Earth mass.

Shortly afterward, more evidence for Planet Nine was discovered, using data from a surprising source: the Cassini space probe. Launched in 1997, this Saturn orbiter allowed the calculation of the position of Saturn over time to unprecedented precision. These were compared to an extremely precise gravitational model of the Solar System known as INPOP, which accounts for the gravitational influence of the Sun, the planets, and many asteroids. The model then outputs planetary ephemerides, namely positions of the planets at given times. A paper published in February 2016 by Agn├Ęs Fienga et al. experimented with adding a Planet Nine at different positions to the INPOP. If the residuals (differences in Saturn's position between the predictions of INPOP and the real measurements from Cassini) are increased, this rules out the existence of Planet Nine in this position. However, if they are decreased, then this is evidence in support of Planet Nine, since it would partially explain the observed discrepancy.



The results of the paper are summarized in the diagram above. They showed that Planet Nine of 10 Earth masses and a semi-major axis of 700 AU was ruled out by Cassini's data to be in the red zones (this increased the residuals). The pink zones correspond to areas that would be ruled out by further inclusion of Cassini's data (the paper only used the measurements through 2014). The green zone, however, is where a Planet Nine would decrease residuals, making the INPOP model a more accurate picture of the Solar System. Therefore, the paper found this to be the most likely zone to find Planet Nine (with the single most likely position indicated). The addition of a Planet Nine in the farther regions of its orbit would not produce significant perturbations, and thus this is labeled "uncertainty zone".

Further analysis fine-tuned the estimates of mass, eccentricity, semi-major axis, and other parameters for the supposed Planet Nine. With an array of increasingly large telescopes at their disposal, astronomers will soon be able to settle the Planet Nine hypothesis one way or the other, bringing new insight into the current structure and the formation of our Solar System.

Sources: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1601.05438v1.pdf, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_of_periapsis, http://arxiv.org/pdf/1602.06116v3.pdf, http://arxiv.org/pdf/1603.05712.pdf

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