Mysterious ‘Niku’ object in outer solar system has a weird orbit

11 Aug 2016

A new mysterious object, which has an orbit that has never been seen before, has been discovered on the outer edge of our solar system.

Contrary to what some might think, there are plenty of mysteries still left to be solved in the solar system, the most recent of which involves the discovery of a large object beyond Neptune, officially referred to as a trans-Neptunian object (TNO).

According to New Scientist, analysis of the TNO suggests it could be a small, icy world just 200km in diameter, meaning it is substantially dimmer than its planetary neighbour, by a factor of 160,000.

While this might not sound that unusual in the wider scheme of the universe, what is really perplexing astronomers is its orbit.

Writing in a new research paper published in the journal Astrophysics, astronomers have said this new TNO orbits on a tilted plane of 110 degrees to the plane of our own solar system.

This, in itself, is unusual, but what is even stranger is that it orbits our sun in the opposite way to everything else we have seen in our solar system, making it highly unusual.

Now dubbed ‘Niku’ after the Chinese adjective for ‘rebellious’, astronomers are now very interested in determining what is causing this, including Queen’s University Belfast astronomer, Michele Bannister.

Because of the overwhelming power of a planetary system to force objects to orbit in the same direction, the suggestion is that Niku must have been knocked off course at some point in time, resulting in its current strangeness.

Relationship to Planet Nine?

This confirmation that there is much of our solar system we are yet to understand is a reason to be excited, according to Konstantin Batygin from the California Institute of Technology: “Whenever you have some feature that you can’t explain in the outer solar system, it’s immensely exciting because it’s in some sense foreshadowing a new development.”

If Batygin’s name sounds familiar, it might be because he was one of the members of the study that pointed towards astrophysical evidence of what has been dubbed Planet Nine on the fringes of our solar system.

In that study, Batygin and his partner, Mike Brown, suggested the existence of a ninth planet with a mass 10-times as large as Earth but an orbit that is 20 times farther from the sun than Neptune.

Sadly for other proponents of the Planet Nine theory, this new research has ruled out the possibility that it could be the reason why Niku has such a weird plane.

Batygin is now hoping this will be one piece of a puzzle that will one day be solved.

“As [the researchers] say in the paper, what they have right now is a hint,” he said. “If this hint develops into a complete story that would be fantastic.”

Neptune illustration via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic