Could ‘planetary-mass object’ beyond Pluto be solar system’s 10th planet?

Scientists at the University of Arizona believe an “unseen planetary-mass object” might be orbiting the sun in our solar system beyond Pluto. 

These researchers with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory believe the planetary mass object to be between Mars and Earth in terms of size. The mass was discovered thanks to its perceived ability to control the orbital planes of space rocks referred to as Kuiper Belt objects, the authors of the study, Kat Volk and Renu Malhotra, write. 

“The most likely explanation for our results is that there is some unseen mass,” Volk, a postdoctoral fellow and the lead author of the study, said in the university’s news release. “According to our calculations, something as massive as Mars would be needed to cause the warp that we measured.”

Before anyone huffs and puffs that there are currently only eight planets, astronomers from the California Institute of Technology found evidence for a planet 10 times the size of Earth beyond Pluto in early 2016. 

A yet to be discovered, unseen “planetary mass object” makes its existence known by ruffling the orbital plane of distant Kuiper Belt objects, according to research by Kat Volk and Renu Malhotra of the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. The object is pictured on a wide orbit far beyond Pluto in this artist’s illustration. (Image: Heather Roper/LPL) 

That possible planet was dubbed “Planet Nine,” so this other unconfirmed “planetary-mass object” could be the 10th planet. 

“This object would be different from — and much closer than — the so-called Planet Nine, a planet whose existence yet awaits confirmation,” a news release from the university reads. 

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For their study, the two authors studied more than 600 objects in the Kuiper Belt in the quest to determine the common direction and tilt of these orbital planes. Space.com points out that while this newly discovered object has yet to be actually be discovered, it is much too small and too close to Earth to be the hypothetical “Planet Nine.” 

“Planet Nine,” from early 2016, is said to be 25 times further away from the sun than Pluto is somewhere between 500 and 700 astronomical units from Earth. 

“That is too far away to influence these KBOs,” Volk said in the release. “It certainly has to be much closer than 100 AU to substantially affect the KBOs in that range.”

The University of Arizona researchers note that the “planetary mass object” has not been spotted in the Kuiper Belt yet, but believe that the under-construction Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will help find hidden worlds such as this one. 

Malhotra said she has high expectations for the telescope, as she said it should bring the number of discovered Kuiper Belt objects from 2,000 to about 40,000. 

“There are a lot more KBOs out there — we just have not seen them yet,” Malhotra said in the release. “Some of them are too far and dim even for LSST to spot, but because the telescope will cover the sky much more comprehensively than current surveys, it should be able to detect this object, if it’s out there.”

As for “Planet Nine,” its researchers have also not observed it, but it was discovered in similar fashion by looking at out of the ordinary orbits of small objects in the deep Kuiper Belt. 

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