Scientists may have found two planets beyond Pluto

20 Jan 2015

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Scientists may have found two planets, potentially as big as Earth, lurking beyond Pluto in our solar system, in a discovery that “may be truly revolutionary for astronomy”.

The potential discovery involves measurements of rocks located well beyond Neptune. A belt of space rocks, known as ‘extreme trans-Neptunian objects’ (ETNO), show unexpected symmetry, according to scientists who have been scouring the solar system looking for everything and anything.

Some of these ETNOs appear to be orbiting in a defined path reminiscent of our moon. By analysing the effects of what’s called the Kozai mechanism – which deals with large objects having smaller ones, much further away, orbiting around its gravitational pull – the researchers have thus theorised that just beyond what they can see could well be some more planets.

If confirmed, this is revolutionary

“This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the ETNO,” said Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, an astrophysicist with the Complutense University of Madrid who is involved in the research.

“We consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto. If it is confirmed, our results may be truly revolutionary for astronomy.”

Yet, as reported by Astronomy Now, there are significant problems to this study. Firstly, this proposal goes against current solar system formation models. These state that no other planets moving in circular orbits exist beyond Neptune.

“However, the recent discovery by the ALMA radio telescope of a planet-forming disk more than 100 astronomical units from the star HL Tauri, which is younger than the sun and more massive, suggests that planets can form several hundred astronomical units away from the centre of the system.”

Small sample, hardly exhaustive

Also, the sample with which these researchers are basing their findings on is rather small, just 13 objects. This could be overcome by results published in the near future, however, with a larger grouping under investigation.

“Last year, two researchers from the United States discovered a dwarf planet called 2012 VP113 in the Oort cloud, just beyond our solar system. The discoverers consider that its orbit is influenced by the possible presence of a dark and icy super-Earth, up to 10 times larger than our planet.”

The study is published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.

Two planets image via Shutterstock

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Gordon Hunt is a journalist at Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com