Mysterious ‘Planet Nine’ may be causing whole solar system to wobble

Planet takes up to 10,000 to 20,000 years to go around the sun

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 2:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 2:09am

Astronomers can’t see “Planet Nine.” But it makes its presence known.

The massive hypothetical object, which supposedly looms at the edge of our solar system, has been invoked to explain the strange clustering of objects in the Kuiper belt and the unusual way they orbit the Sun.

Now Planet Nine predictors Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown of Caltech, along with graduate student Elizabeth Bailey, offer another piece of evidence for the elusive sphere’s existence: It adds “wobble” to the solar system, they say, tilting it in relation to the sun.

“Because Planet Nine is so massive and has an orbit tilted compared to the other planets, the solar system has no choice but to slowly twist out of alignment,” lead author Bailey said in a statement.

Before we go any further, a caveat about Planet Nine: It’s purely theoretical at this point. Batygin and Brown predict its existence based on unusual perturbations of the solar system that aren’t otherwise easily explained.

But the evidence offered by Batygin and Brown is compelling. When the pair announced their find in January, planetary scientist Alessandro Morbidelli of the Côte d’Azur Observatory in Nice, France, told The Washington Post: “I don’t see any alternative explanation to that offered by Batygin and Brown.”

“We will find it one day,” he added. “The question is when.”

The new research led by Bailey is based on the observation that the Sun rotates on a different axis than the orbits of the planets. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune all move around the sun in a flat, shared plane - it’s as if the planets were skaters on the same rink. But that plane is tilted at a six-degree angle with respect to the sun which, from our perspective, makes it look like the sun is tilted.

“It’s such a deep-rooted mystery and so difficult to explain that people just don’t talk about it,” Brown said.

Enter Planet Nine. Based on Batygin and Brown’s previous calculations, the hypothesised planet weighs five to 10 times as much as Earth and is, on average, 20 times farther from the sun than Neptune. It takes Planet Nine 10,000 to 20,000 years to orbit the sun.

Planet Nine also orbits at an even more dramatic angle than the rest of the planets: about 30 degrees. That fact, combined with its distant location and massive size, could mean that its angular momentum puts the rest of the solar system off-kilter.

“It’s an argument that is basically like an asymmetrical seesaw or a dolly,” Batygin told Astronomy Magazine. “Planet Nine has a really long orbit, so it can assert quite a bit of torque on the inner planets without having to apply so much force. Planet Nine has as much angular momentum as the entire solar system combined, because its orbit is so big.”

Most of all, they need to find the darn thing. Scientists have a sense of its orbital path, but that path is thousands of years long. Even with some of the most powerful telescopes scouring the skies, it could be a very long wait.