‘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…

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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?

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

Just add water: scientists explain Saturn’s powerful thunderstorms

A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thunderstorms are a powerful force of nature, but the ones we experience on Earth are dwarfed by the ones on the gas giant planet Saturn. They are huge and can be larger than Earth itself, and now scientists think they know why they tend to appear most prominently every 20-30 years, encircling the entire planet with intense lightning and massive cloud disturbances.

Continue reading →