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Can an Earth-like planet be concealed in the outer reaches of our solar system?

One of the puzzling enigmas about the farthest regions of our solar system is the remarkably egg-shaped orbit of a little planet known as 90377 Sedna. Sedna’s super-long 11,400-year trip around the sun is one of the lengthiest orbits in our solar neighborhood. It first swings the dwarf planet about 7 billion miles (or 11.3 billion km) away from the sun, then sends it on an even more epic journey way out past the Kuiper Belt, reaching a whopping 87 billion miles (about 140 billion km). Eventually, it guides Sedna through a loose gathering of icy things called the Oort cloud.

Ever since astronomers stumbled upon Sedna back in 2003, they’ve grappled with a puzzling question: How did this celestial body come into existence in what appears to be a desolate expanse of space? It resides in a realm so distant that it remains beyond the gravitational influence of the solar system’s giant planets and even the vast Milky Way galaxy itself, making its origin a true cosmic conundrum.

Is there an Earth-like planet out there?

A fresh study (via proposes a rather interesting idea: There might be an Earth-like planet hiding out in that area, and it could be messing with the paths of Sedna and some other trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). These TNOs are essentially those numerous icy objects way out there, way beyond Neptune, just doing their thing in enormous orbits around the sun.

Astronomers suggest that a hidden planet might be responsible for the peculiar orbits of many TNOs, causing them to have strangely tilted and egg-shaped paths. Two scientists from Japan employed computer simulations to study how an as-yet-undiscovered planet might impact TNOs. These simulations involved tracking the movements of both actual and simulated TNOs in the distant Kuiper Belt, an icy region, and they managed to replicate the unusual orbits seen in Sedna and other TNOs.

According to astronomers, this mysterious planet would be around 1.5 to three times the size of Earth and would exist somewhere between 23 billion miles (around 37 billion km) and 46 billion miles (roughly 74 billion km) away from the sun.

“It is plausible that a primordial planetary body could survive in the distant Kuiper Belt, as many such bodies existed in the early solar system,” researchers write in the new study.

Also Read: What’s the minimum number of people required for a sustainable Mars habitat?

Sounds similar to the Planet Nine theory, right?

Hunting for planets hiding out in the icy outskirts of our solar system isn’t exactly a novel idea.

Planet Nine, the alleged celestial giant weighing in at a whopping ten times Earth’s mass, is believed to have a hand in creating at least five peculiar phenomena within our solar system. This includes the wonky, tilted orbits of a handful of Kuiper Belt objects.

This hypothetical sphere has piqued the curiosity of countless researchers, yet it continues to elude detection. However, studies propose that if Planet Nine does indeed exist in our cosmic neighborhood, it might be positioned somewhere in the vast expanse between 37 billion miles (approximately 59 billion km) and 74 billion miles (around 119 billion km) from the sun.

While the idea of Planet Nine has garnered substantial interest from research teams globally, it’s also sparked debates. Some astronomers contend that the wildly eccentric orbits of TNOs, which initially suggested the need for Planet Nine, could potentially transpire even without the existence of this concealed planet.

The study revealed a fascinating discovery

Back in 2016, Batygin and his colleague Mike Brown, who’s an astronomer at Caltech, conducted a study. They delved into the elliptical orbits of six well-known objects located in the Kuiper Belt, a far-flung zone housing icy entities extending from Neptune’s vicinity toward the realms of interstellar space. Their investigation unveiled a fascinating discovery: all these Kuiper Belt objects displayed elliptical orbits aligned in a consistent direction. These orbits were also tilted approximately 30 degrees “downward” compared to the plane in which the eight recognized planets orbit the sun, as stated in the report.

By employing computer simulations of the solar system incorporating the presence of Planet Nine, Batygin and Brown were able to demonstrate that there ought to be additional objects tilted a staggering 90 degrees concerning the solar plane. Upon closer examination, they found that five objects already met these criteria, as per the researchers.

Subsequently, these astronomers uncovered fresh evidence that lends more weight to the idea of Planet Nine’s existence. With assistance from Elizabeth Bailey, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at Caltech, the team put forth a theory suggesting that Planet Nine could have played a role in tilting the planets within our solar system. This tilt could potentially account for the fact that the orbital plane of the eight major planets circling the sun is skewed by approximately 6 degrees in comparison to the sun’s equator.

In the future, the scientists intend to employ the Subaru Telescope located at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii for the purpose of locating Planet Nine. Once they’ve located this enigmatic world, they hope to unravel the mystery of its origins.

Also Read: Is interstellar travel really possible or just a distant dream?

High probability of spotting the planet

In 2021, an unaffiliated study actually asserted that the data relied upon by the team that initially proposed the existence of Planet Nine might have been skewed. This independent study went on to suggest that the likelihood of such a planet being real is exceedingly slim.

Compared to Planet Nine, the recently suggested planet, often referred to as “Kuiper Belt Planet (KBP),” would be in much closer proximity to the Kuiper Belt and exert a more significant influence on the orbits of Kuiper Belt objects, particularly those situated beyond 4 billion miles (around 7 billion km). This insight stems from the latest research.

It’s important to emphasize that nobody has laid eyes on the KBP, whether through direct observation or indirect methods. However, the authors highlight that if the KBP does indeed circle within a range of 34 billion miles (about 54 billion km), there’s a 90% probability of spotting it in the celestial expanse.

To determine whether the KBP is real or not, we require additional insights into the composition of objects on the outskirts of the Kuiper Belt. You can find the full details of this study in a paper published on August 25th in The Astronomical Journal.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.