By Richard A. Lovett
An as yet undiscovered planet might be orbiting at the dark fringes of the solar system, according to new research.
Too far out to be easily spotted by telescopes, the potential unseen planet appears to be making its presence felt by disturbing the orbits of so-called Kuiper belt objects, said Rodney Gomes, an astronomer at the National Observatory of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
Kuiper belt objects are small icy bodies—including some dwarf planets—that lie beyond the orbit of Neptune.
Once considered the ninth planet in our system, the dwarf planet Pluto, for example, is one of the largest Kuiper belt objects, at about 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) wide. Dozens of the other objects are hundreds of miles across, and more are being discovered every year.
(See "Three New 'Plutos'? Possible Dwarf Planets Found.")
What's intriguing, Gomes said, is that, according to his new calculations, about a half dozen Kuiper belt objects—including the remote body known as Sedna—are in strange orbits compared to where they should be, based on existing solar system models. (Related: "Pluto Neighbor Gets Downsized.")
The objects' unexpected orbits have a few possible explanations, said Gomes, who presented his findings Tuesday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Timberline Lodge, Oregon.
"But I think the easiest one is a planetary-mass solar companion"—a planet that orbits very far out from the sun but that's massive enough to be having gravitational effects on Kuiper belt objects.
Mystery Planet a Captured Rogue?
For the new work, Gomes analyzed the orbits of 92 Kuiper belt objects, then compared his results to computer models of how the bodies should be distributed, with and without an additional planet.
If there's no distant world, Gomes concludes, the models don't produce the highly elongated orbits we see for six of the objects.
How big exactly the planetary body might be isn't clear, but there are a lot of possibilities, Gomes added.
Based on his calculations, Gomes thinks a Neptune-size world, about four times bigger than Earth, orbiting 140 billion miles (225 billion kilometers) away from the sun—about 1,500 times farther than Earth—would do the trick.
But so would a Mars-size object—roughly half Earth's size—in a highly elongated orbit that would occasionally bring the body sweeping to within 5 billion miles (8 billion kilometers) of the sun.
Gomes speculates that the mystery object could be a rogue planet that was kicked out of its own star system and later captured by the sun's gravity. (See "'Nomad' Planets More Common Than Thought, May Orbit Black Holes.")
Or the putative planet could have formed closer to our sun, only to be cast outward by gravitational encounters with other planets.
However, actually finding such a world would be a challenge.
To begin with, the planet might be pretty dim. Also, Gomes's simulations don't give astronomers any clue as to where to point their telescopes—"it can be anywhere," he said.
Story continues: National Geographic