‘Weird object’ discovered beyond Neptune: A clue in the quest for Planet Nine?

The newly discovered object called Niku is a real oddity (artist’s conception). It is also part of a group of many such objects far past Neptune in the outer Solar System. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger
The newly discovered object called Niku is a real oddity (artist’s conception). It is also part of a group of many such objects far past Neptune in the outer Solar System. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger

For the most part, the Solar System seems to be a rather well-ordered place; the planets, dwarf planets, and asteroids keep circling the Sun in regular orbits, the moons keep orbiting the planets, and so on. There are exceptions, however, such as how Uranus rotates “on its side” as compared to other planets and how Venus rotates in the opposite direction to most other planets. Now, astronomers have discovered another similar oddity, in the outer fringes of the Solar System: a small, asteroid-like object whose orbit is not only highly tilted against the orbital plane of the planets, but is also orbiting backwards compared to them. And it’s not alone. It appears to be part of a larger group of objects all doing the same thing. Weird…

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Back to the ice giants: proposed new mission would re-visit Uranus or Neptune (or both!)

Uranus (left) and Neptune (right). These two ice giants and their many moons are awaiting further exploration. Image Credit: NASA
Uranus (left) and Neptune (right). These two ice giants and their many moons are awaiting further exploration. Image Credit: NASA

The outer Solar System has been a busy place lately, with the ongoing Cassini mission at Saturn and New Horizons’ recent spectacular flyby of Pluto. Literally in-between those two worlds, however, it has been quiet for a long time now – the last time the ice giants Uranus and Neptune were visited was 26 years ago yesterday, when the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune. There have been no new missions to these worlds since then, but if a new proposed mission gets the green light, that may change in the not-too-distant future.

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