‘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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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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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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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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New NASA planetary science proposals include Venus and ‘metallic asteroid’ missions

Artist’s conception of the VERITAS spacecraft in orbit around Venus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the VERITAS spacecraft in orbit around Venus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Looking ahead to future planetary missions, NASA has selected five new science investigations for refinement over the next year. Later, one or two of those missions will be chosen to actually be launched, perhaps as early as 2020. The selections are part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which had requested the proposals in November 2014. Initially, 27 proposals had been submitted, from which the five current finalists were chosen. The five proposals would study Venus, near-Earth objects, an unusual metallic asteroid and Trojan asteroids.

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Is Jupiter’s core liquifying?

Jupiter, with the moon Ganymede peeking out from behind. Credit: NASA/ESA/E. Karkoschka (U. Arizona)

Jupiter, the largest and most massive planet in our solar system, may be its own worst enemy. It turns out that its central core may in fact be self-destructing, gradually liquifying and dissolving over time. This implies it was previously larger than it is now, and may dissolve altogether at some point in the future. Will Jupiter eventually destroy itself completely? No, probably not, but it may lose its heart…

See Universe Today for the full article.

Could we find extraterrestrial artifacts in our solar system?

The "monolith" on Phobos. Credit: NASA/JPL

In the search for extraterrestrial life, the focus has long been in two primary areas – looking for evidence of microscopic organisms, either past or present, or radio/optical signals from other civilizations. What about other options? What about physical artifacts from advanced space-faring societies? While this may seem like a real long-shot or even unbelievable to many, it is considered to be a possibility by some scientists according to this news article from Penn State University. Perhaps unmanned probes, much like the ones we ourselves have already sent out to a growing number of planets and moons, and even outside of our solar system altogether. But could we find them if they existed?

So far, no obvious evidence for anything like this has been found, although there are oddities such as the “monolith” on Mars’ moon Phobos, an unusual-looking tall bump or protuberance on the surface seen by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter, but not in enough detail yet to see what it actually is. Many other oddities have been reported on the Moon, Mars and other moons in the solar system over the years. Of course, many are illusions or examples of pareidolia, while others may be worthy of closer study. That is an entire subject in itself.

According to Jacob Haqq-Misra, of the Rock Ethics Institute, and Ravi Kumar Kopparapu, of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, “The vastness of space, combined with our limited searches to date, implies that any remote unpiloted exploratory probes of extraterrestrial origin would likely remain unnoticed.” They are publishing a paper which has been accepted by Acta Astronautica and posted online on ArXiv. They continued however, “Extraterrestrial artifacts may exist in the solar system without our knowledge simply because we have not yet searched sufficiently. Few if any of the attempts would be capable of detecting a 1 to 10 meter (3 to 33 foot) probe.”

They have devised a probabilistic method to try to determine how likely it may be to find such artifacts in our solar system. Their conclusion? It would be difficult at this point to say that there aren’t any. That may seem simplistic, but as they noted, there are many places in the solar system which just haven’t been explored enough yet. “The surface of the Earth is one of the few places in the solar system that has been almost completely examined at a spatial resolution of less than 3 feet,” they said.

They summed it up this way: “Searches to date of the solar system are sufficiently incomplete that we cannot rule out the possibility that nonterrestrial artifacts are present and may even be observing us. The completeness of our search for nonterrestrial objects will inevitably increase as we continue to explore the moon, Mars and other nearby regions of space.”

Such a discovery would be momentous if it happened, but for now we can only speculate and keep our eyes open as we continue exploring.

Do you have ideas for deep space travel? NASA wants to hear from you

Artist's conception of solar sail in orbit. Credit: NASA

You’ve probably heard by now how NASA is going to focus more on deep space exploration, both manned and robotic, leaving the low-Earth orbit and suborbital realms to commercial companies, a major change. There is, however, an opportunity for public input for deep space exploration as well, thanks to a new initiative for competitive ideas from universities, students, companies and government agencies. This means that you may have a chance to forward your proposals to help solve the problems that will need to be resolved in the coming years…

See Universe Today for the full article.

Enceladus and its water geysers pose again for Cassini

View of Enceladus' surface, image taken October 19, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus was the centre of attention for the Cassini spacecraft again last week, with beautiful new photos being released of the moon and its water vapour geysers erupting from the south pole. Some views show surface detail on the moon, some are of the geysers themselves and there is a very nice shot of Enceladus silhouetted against Saturn and its rings in the background. There is even a dual ultraviolet stellar occultation in which two of the stars in the belt of the constellation Orion are seen shining through the plumes! Even though these are still raw, unprocessed images, they again capture the beauty of Enceladus and the Saturnian system…

See Universe Today for the full article.