Is ‘Planet 9’ really a second massive Kuiper Belt?

The Kuiper Belt is a massive collection of dwarf planet and asteroid-sized worlds orbiting far past Neptune. Is the hypothetical Planet 9 really a second such belt? Image Credit: T. Pyle (SSC)/JPL-Caltech/NASA

The Kuiper Belt is a massive collection of dwarf planet and asteroid-sized worlds orbiting far past Neptune. Is the hypothetical Planet 9 really a second such belt? Image Credit: T. Pyle (SSC)/JPL-Caltech/NASA

The announcement of a possible large ninth planet in our Solar System way beyond Neptune last month caused a lot of excitement, needless to say. If confirmed, it may be similar to “super-Earth” type exoplanets which have been found to be plentiful around other stars, although none, that we knew of, around ours. At this point, however, it is still a well-presented theory. Now, there’s another possibility which has been offered to explain the weird orbits of some of the small Kuiper Belt objects – not a large planet, but rather a second Kuiper Belt consisting of many smaller objects instead.

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‘Cauliflower’ silica formations on Mars: evidence of ancient life?

Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Was there ever life on Mars? That is one of the longest-running and most debated questions in planetary science, and while there have been tantalizing clues, solid evidence has been elusive. Now there is a new piece to add to the puzzle, which may be one of the most interesting yet. As first reported on Smithsonian.com, odd formations composed of silica seen by the Spirit rover, nicknamed “cauliflower” for their shapes, may have been produced by microbes, new research suggests. They are very similar to some silica formations on Earth which are found in hydrothermal environments and are known to have formed with the help of microscopic organisms.

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Data from New Horizons reveals more water ice on Pluto than previously thought

False-colour, infrared maps of Pluto from New Horizons, showing regular detection method of water ice on the left and the more sensitive technique on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JHUIAPL/SwRI

False-colour, infrared maps of Pluto from New Horizons, showing regular detection method of water ice on the left and the more sensitive technique on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JHUIAPL/SwRI

New Horizons has shown Pluto to be a diverse world, more so than many scientists had anticipated, with tall mountain ranges, vast glaciers, a blue-colored layered atmosphere, and possible ice volcanoes. One thing, however, which seemed to be relatively lacking, was exposed water ice. Not much had been seen on the surface, not even in the glacial regions, which are composed of other ices instead. But now, new data indicates there actually is more water ice than had originally been thought.

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Incredible Opportunity: ’90-day rover’ celebrates 12th anniversary on Mars

Opportunity examining the rock outcrop called “Private John Potts” on the southern side of Marathon Valley. The rover has just passed its 12th anniversary milestone and is still going strong. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity examining the rock outcrop called “Private John Potts” on the southern side of Marathon Valley. The rover has just passed its 12th anniversary milestone and is still going strong. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We’ve all seen the commercials for the Energizer Bunny, which keeps going and going and going… it just never seems to stop. This makes for an interesting analogy with the Opportunity rover, which is just now passing its 12th anniversary on Mars. Not just 90 days, as hoped for, but 12 years and counting. Incredible. And in that time, Opportunity has helped to fundamentally alter our understanding of this fascinating world.

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Has ‘Planet X’ finally been found? A cautionary tale

planet-9

Artist’s conception of Planet Nine. The new evidence is the best so far that a massive planet exists far past Neptune in the outer Solar System. Image Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

For a long time now, there have been theories and rumors regarding the possible existence of another planet in our Solar System, far beyond Neptune or even Pluto, often referred to as “Planet X.” Unfortunately, there has been little hard evidence to back up any claims made. But now, new evidence has been presented by astronomers at Caltech which increases the likelihood of another, and fairly large, distant planet in the far outer reaches of the Solar System. How does this compare to other discovery claims for Planet X?

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Mystery deepens: new study shows comets don’t explain odd dimming of Kepler’s ‘weird star’

The mystery surrounding KIC 8462852 may not involve comets after all, but it is still an enigma for astronomers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The mystery surrounding KIC 8462852 may not involve comets after all, but it is still an enigma for astronomers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As has been reported previously, there is something weird going on around a star which is a little over 1,400 light-years away. Astronomers are still baffled as to just what that is, and theories have ranged from a huge mass of comets to alien megastructures. Indeed, comets had become the leading explanation offered for the star’s odd behaviour, although that was really just the best of a bunch of ideas which all had flaws in them. Now, new research shows that the comet explanation is even less likely to be the answer, although the actual explanation is still as elusive as ever. Needless to say, this has resulted in a lot of discussion and debate in the past few months.

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Image Gallery: the hazy blue atmosphere of Pluto

The hazy blue atmosphere of Pluto. @NASA/JPL/Roman Tkachenko

The hazy blue atmosphere of Pluto. Image Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI/Roman Tkachenko

Another beautiful view of Pluto, taken by New Horizons as it passed by the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015. Pluto is backlit by the Sun, showing the hazy blue colour of its thin atmosphere, a view never possible from Earth. Image processing by Roman Tkachenko. It is also now the current header image for the blog. Larger version available here.

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Pluto’s large nitrogen ice ‘sea’ probably formed from giant impact, scientists say

The vast ice plains of Sputnik Planum on Pluto. The basin, now filled with nitrogen ice, was probably created by a huge impact. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The vast ice plains of Sputnik Planum on Pluto. The basin, now filled with nitrogen ice, was probably created by a huge impact. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Instead of being little more than a frozen and unchanging rocky iceball, Pluto has been revealed to be a complex and dynamic little world, with mountains, valleys, vast icy plains, glaciers and a hazy, layered atmosphere. The New Horizons spacecraft is continuing to send back data, even though it is now long past Pluto since its historic flyby last summer. Seen up close for the first time ever, Pluto is starting to share its secrets, including how it can be a geologically active place despite being so far from the Sun; of particular interest to scientists are the icy, crater-free plains composed of nitrogen ice, which churns and moves very slowly, sort of like the globules in a lava lamp. These plains are like a huge nitrogen ice “sea,” bordered by tall mountains and glaciers.

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Dawn spacecraft begins extensive study of dwarf planet Ceres from lowest orbit

Artist’s conception of Dawn orbiting Ceres. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s conception of Dawn orbiting Ceres. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Dawn spacecraft just recently entered its lowest and final orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, providing the closest look ever at the puzzling world. Dawn will, of course, be taking thousands more high-resolution photographs, but what else will it be doing during the remainder of its mission? Various aspects of the mission will study Ceres in unprecedented detail.

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2015 in review: a year of spectacular planetary missions and discoveries

High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons, showing rugged mountains and vast icy plains. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons, showing rugged mountains and vast icy plains. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

To say that 2015 has been a great year for planetary exploration would be an understatement, with fantastic new discoveries from around the Solar System. From our first ever close-up look at Pluto and its moons, to more evidence for ancient lakes and rivers on Mars (and current briny streams) to weird bright spots and mountains on Ceres, to the continuing study of Saturn and its moons, notably Enceladus, to spectacular close-up views of a comet, it has indeed been quite a year.

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