Planet 9 is the next big thing in the Solar System. Not literally, of course. It’s more massive than Pluto, though that’s not saying much. It’s likely sitting out in the chilly Kuiper belt. And it may be an indicator that there is more going on outside of edge of our neighborhood than we previously thought.
When researchers at Caltech announced the possible discovery of a ninth planet, the “Plutocrats” quickly jumped online and furious clicked their way to disappointment. No, this wasn’t a stunning reversal of the 2006 vote by the International Astronomical Union to officially reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet. This was new. At least, new to those of us not involved in the day to day grind of plotting the movements of objects hurling through space in the far reaches of our solar system.
So, what’s the excitement about? Based on a computational analysis of astronomical bodies within the Kuiper belt, scientists are leaning towards the existence of a previously unknown planet with a mass nearly ten times that of Earth. That puts it well within the official requirements for planetary status. So where is the parade announcing our new heavenly neighbor? How about a mention during Leonardo DiCaprio’s #Oscars speech? I guess he was too concerned with our environment on our own planet. How earthcentric!
Science is known for boggling our minds. It gives us the capability to take measurements akin to predicting the size of the United States with an accuracy of the breadth of a human hair, and it allows us to smash atomic particles into each other at rates near the speed of light. Scientists themselves, however, move rather slowly and judiciously when it comes to official discoveries and what their findings say about the world. Right now, this new planet, Planet 9, is mostly inferred as a result of predictions based on orbital observations of other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO). That means no one has “seen” this planet directly, but Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown, the researchers at Caltech who released their findings in January, believe their computational modeling leans towards the existence of the new planet.
There are other possibilities to explain some of their observations, but these are being slowly ruled out with their work. For instance, it could be that there are distant KBO that exert enough gravitational force put together in order to create a similar behavior amongst the orbits they observed. Unfortunately, for that to be the case, the Kuiper belt itself would require 100 times the mass it is known to have. That’s a much bigger belt, but we’re not going to engage in fat-shaming the solar system here. Besides, the Solar System isn’t fat. It’s just big banged.
Scientific discoveries are often thought of in the colloquial sense as occurring when a white lab-coated eccentric points some newly improvised technological device into either the sky or towards a petri dish and having a “eureka!” moment. But that’s a bit of a mischaracterization. Real scientific discoveries are less about the “aha!” moments, and more about the “huh?” moments. It’s the “huh” moments that inspire a curious mind to think, “That’s odd. Why does that happen? What does it mean? If it means this here, then I should notice that over there. I’m gonna check that”. Using known observational data to predict currently undetected data is at the heart of the scientific method. As Brown and Batygin worked on the project together, they found more suggestions pointing towards a new planet. Their model predicted objects rotating on a perpendicular orbit, which they soon detected in the real world.
If a hypothesis is unable to predict something observable, regardless of how intriguing the hypothesis is, you’re kind of stuck. It may be years, sometimes longer than the life of the scientist who came up with the idea, to see a prediction confirmed. In his lifetime, Einstein achieved massive recognition when his general theory of relativity predicted that the force of gravity could bend light, and saw it confirmed during an eclipse on May 29th, 1919. But his theory also predicted the existence of gravitational waves. On Feb 11, 2016, scientists announced detection of these waves, almost a century later.
We will have to wait and sit on the sidelines to find out if Planet 9, let’s hope they come up with a more badass name, is anointed officially by the scientific powers that be. It would be nice if it didn’t take a hundred years, though.