No, there's no proof of a giant planet in the outer solar system

By Phil Plait | February 14, 2011 2:30 pm

I’m getting a lot of email and tweets about NASA supposedly having proof of a giant, Jupiter-sized planet orbiting the Sun way beyond Pluto. Let me be clear: while certainly possible, this idea is not at all proven, and in my opinion still pretty unlikely. As usual, this started as a more-or-less accurate media story and is getting inflated as it gets re-reported. As far as I can tell, the original report was in the UK paper The Independent.

Here’s the deal. Two astronomers, John Matese and Dan Whitmire, have theorized about the possibility of a previously-undiscovered planet way beyond Pluto for some time. This is not a crazy idea; we see planets orbiting other stars way out, and there’s other evidence big planets can be pretty far out from the Sun (mind you, evidence does not mean proof). As it happens, there are lots of chunks of ice orbiting the Sun pretty far out as well. Some of these have orbits which bring them into the inner solar system, and we see them as long-period comets.

What Matese and Whitmire did was wonder how a big planet would affect the orbits of these comets. If you measured enough of them, would you see the effects of the gravity of this planet? They claim you can, and even gave the planet a tentative name: Tyche.

I read their papers, and thought the data were interesting but unconvincing. The sample size was too small. A bigger study was done, but again the effects weren’t quite enough to rise to the level of breakthrough. I’m not saying the astronomers are wrong — the data were certainly provocative, and potentially correct! Just not firm enough.

What I want to see are observations of this planet. And our best hope may be in the NASA satellite WISE — the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which has scanned the entire sky over the past year or so. A planet in the outer solar system may be warm enough to glow in the IR and be spotted in the WISE data.

The article in The Independent talks about this, saying:

But scientists now believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, Wise, and is just waiting to be analysed.

The first tranche of data is to be released in April, and astrophysicists John Matese and Daniel Whitmire from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette think it will reveal Tyche within two years. "If it does, John and I will be doing cartwheels," Professor Whitmire said. "And that’s not easy at our age."

Note that first line: it makes it seem as if the proof of the planet is already in the data. We just need to find it!

But that’s not really the case. This planet may not exist at all. It might, and I’d love for that to be true. But at the moment we just have interesting but inconclusive evidence supporting the idea of a large planet in the deep dark recesses of the solar system. That’s a long way from proof.

I’ll note the popular site Gizmodo has an article on this that starts off well, but then goes even farther than the Independent did: "[Matese and Whitmire] claim that data already captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer proves its existence. It only needs to be analyzed… over the next two years".

The Independent said that the astronomers believe the proof is there, but that’s different than actually claiming it’s there. I think the article in The Independent is fairly well-measured, but Gizmodo took it a bit too far. And in either case, I’m quite sure that lay people reading these articles will walk away thinking the planet’s reality is a given.

But at this point, we don’t know. And it’s possible that the planet exists and WISE won’t see it; it may be too dim to spot. There are many variations here. Basically it boils down to only one statement that can be said with certainty: if WISE sees it, it exists. But if it’s not seen in the WISE data, that doesn’t prove anything one way or another; it narrows the possibilities down and gives us an upper limit on how big, distant, and warm the planet might be. But we’d need to keep looking for it.

There’s been a spate of overblown stories dealing with astronomy lately (see Related Posts, below). I think this is a coincidence, but it’s certainly keeping me busy. And I’m still not done yet. Stay tuned.

Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA; Robert Hurt, IPAC


Related posts:

Media fail (or, Superstorm followup)
Media FAIL *again* (HuffPo and Apophis edition)
Repeat after me: Apophis is not a danger
Betelgeuse and 2012

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: comets, planet, Tyche

Comments (157)

Links to this Post

  1. No, there’s no proof of a giant planet in the outer solar system – Discover Magazine (blog) | Aerospace Jobs, Aerospace Training | February 14, 2011
  2. [Space] New planet in the offing? by ICFire - Page 2 - TribalWar Forums | February 14, 2011
  3. Interstellar « Digital Eccentric | February 15, 2011
  4. Slatest | The Daily Slog | February 15, 2011
  5. Phil Plait: There’s No Proof of A Giant Ninth Planet. « OMEGA-LEVEL.net - Three Geeks Utterly Unpresentable To Your Parents | February 15, 2011
  6. » The search is for a tenth planet giant hidden in the Oort cloud [Planet X] Egadget news and reviews | February 15, 2011
  7. New giant planet may – repeat, may – be discovered in our solar system | Posted | National Post | February 15, 2011
  8. A brief note on the Tyche furor | History and Futility | February 15, 2011
  9. Anonymous | February 16, 2011
  10. Dream A Little Dream Of The Day - TDW Geeks | February 16, 2011
  11. Is a Giant, Hidden Planet Orbiting Our Sun? | Jesse Randolph | February 16, 2011
  12. A giant hidden planet in our own solar system | February 16, 2011
  13. Have We Marked the Spot of Planet X? « Lights in the Dark | February 16, 2011
  14. Is There A Giant Planet Hidden in the Outer Region of the Solar System? | Disinformation | February 17, 2011
  15. A new giant planet in the outer Solar System? « TealScientific | February 17, 2011
  16. A Giant Hidden Planet In Our Own Solar System? | February 18, 2011
  17. A Giant Hidden Planet In Our Own Solar System? « Health & Medicine Daily News | February 24, 2011
  18. Jupiter’s Bigger Brother? « The Rogues Gallery | February 25, 2011
  19. Episode #9 – Om hekseskatter og sure blodlegemer « Saltklypa | February 25, 2011
  20. Is there another Giant Planet in Our Solar System? « Skeptical Science | March 2, 2011
  21. What about claims of extraterrestrial life in the Journal of Cosmology? | Koppernigk | March 5, 2011
  22. Journal Of Cosmology And Alien Life On Meteorite | Collin Maessen | March 6, 2011
  23. Alien Bacteria *Possibly* Discovered in Meteorite: UPDATE « A Quantum of Knowledge | March 6, 2011
  24. Tyche, signora delle comete; Nemesis, signora della distruzione; e Nibiru, signore dei creduloni « Fuffologia | April 1, 2011
  25. Mystery Planet: Is a Rogue Giant Orbiting Our Sun? « SpaceJibe | May 20, 2011
  26. Discovery of a new planet | chemistry project | July 11, 2011
  27. Mystery Planet | Jade Kira | July 23, 2011
  28. WISE-teleskopet släpper halva kartan « Tyngdlöst | November 12, 2011
  1. Patrick

    Great, now all the 2012 Nibiru people will grab this, twist and, and use it as proof that we are all going to die in 2012, and that NASA is hiding the truth that will save us.

  2. Gonçalo Aguiar

    @ Patrick
    Nibiru claims are pathetically ridiculous. They say the planet has elliptical orbit and that it comes closer to the Sun than Mercury at some point, so there is no way we could have missed that kind of planet in that kind of orbit.

  3. ND

    Gonçalo Aguiar,

    The number of people who will believe in pathetically ridiculous stuff is not insignificant.

  4. Sir Eccles

    Isn’t this essentially how Neptune and Pluto were discovered, by measuring perturbations in the orbit of Uranus?

  5. Ron1

    Phil. Nice work.

    Cheers

  6. Bev

    |:<

    Why not? Out of all the end of the world scenarios…this one was my favorite.

    HOW COULD WE MISS IT!??!

  7. Maria

    @1 Annoying isn’t it? It’s like everything is evidence to the Nibiruites.

    It’s funny. Even if NASA was hiding the truth, I’m not quite sure what exactly they would have them do to save us from a Jupiter sized planet hurtling towards Terra.

    I mean Poland can barely build enough roads in time for the Euro2012, so I doubt we can get enough Nuclear weapons and aging (yet still oddly hot) Bruce Willises ready to do battle.

  8. You don’t think the spate of overblown stories was inspired by the Kepler announcement?

  9. Nick L

    Ah, good old Nemesis. Always shrinking in size but never to the point where it becomes too small to terrorize the inner solar system with snowballs.

  10. Oli

    @4. Sir Eccles – yes, but those perturbations turned out to be nonexistant after later observations.

  11. I’m all for December 21, 2012. Big party here in Shanghai at my bar, and I reckon the 22nd, we’ll all FEEL like we died, but then again, hangovers can be a right pain.

  12. BradC

    Wow, a planet orbiting at 15,000 AUs??? That’s insanely far! What’s the projected orbital period of a planet out that far?

  13. andy

    There’s also a whole load of evidence from observations of young stars that massive planets on very wide orbits are extremely rare around solar-type stars. Typically the searches come up empty.

  14. gunkan

    All i’m saying is if they DO find it, the “My Very Elegant Mother Just Served Us Nine…” thing will work again… Nine Tomatoes? Turkeys? Turduckens?

  15. I think it should be a general consensus that everyone on the Internet disregard any and all space or science related articles written on Gizmodo. If you want to find out about the latest iPod or over-designed lampshade, fine. However, they’ve proven again and again at being inept and ignorant of facts when relating to astronomy, spaceflight and science (especially the Gizmodo author of the post in question). Even when their more sensible readers and other blogs (such as this one!) point out their factual errors, they neglect to go back and post corrections.

  16. bk89

    Another larger than dwarf sized planet would be effing awesome… but it’ll probably just be great lob of ice… or a giant blob of gas, if its that big…

    a brown dwarf or something that could generate enought heat to sustain some intresting moons would be cool…

    but… the odds of anything being out there, other than alot of ice, is pretty slim…

  17. Ron1

    @12 Kurtjmac

    Well said.

  18. The Obnox

    I just stopped in hoping to find you discussing this, and here it is, at the top of the page. Thanks for the lowdown.

  19. JR

    I guess this is tangentially-related, but I just recently read about a hypothetical object called “Nemesis.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemesis_(star)

    Unlike Planet X, there doesn’t seem to be an overriding scientific consensus that it’s bunk, and I think it would be pretty awesome if it did exist. Do you have a take on it?

  20. MarkW

    BradC #10 Kepler’s laws give a figure of about 1.8 million years for a planet with a semi-major axis of 15000AU.

  21. Dutch follew

    This article and some comments made me think of something kind of off topic.

    In Holland there is a night show on radio and an astrologist was on the phone. She is going to do astrology for listeners, starting with the radio host. Of course it was the old cold reading again. “You should be courageous to deal with you horoscope”. “You should be open to understand what the horoscope means”. “You should be open to things that are correct”. And “no *laugh* the magazine horoscopes are way to crude and will count for only a few percent of the readers”. (lady didn’t tell the sign was irrelevant here).

    The lady was asked about the new sign (not about Pluto). Guess what. The new sign doesn’t belong to mainstream astrology. “Of course not”, “it’s false”, “blah blah”, “it belongs to the spiritual branch of astrology”, “it’s important if you want a spiritual examination.”

    Astrology problem solved. So if there were a gas giant out there -or a planet like Pluto less-, this wouldn’t be a problem for astrology but a solution. ‘Ah, now we understand things much better!’

  22. Rebecca Harbison

    bk89@13

    Even a Jupiter-mass planet could have an Io or a Europa, both of which are heated from the interior via interactions with other moons and Jupiter.

    Given Jupiter puts out twice as much heat as it gets from the Sun, and its temperature at 1 atmosphere is 165K, a Jupiter with no sunlight would still have a temperature at 1 atm at about 150K (warmer than Saturn) — energy scales as temperature to the 4th power. Too cold to heat its moons much, but enough for interesting weather. And to be a comfortably bright source in the thermal IR.

  23. Michael Swanson

    From comments on Tyche at dailymail.co.uk…

    “If it is Nibiru, It does fit Sitchin,s description and it is right on schedule for 2012. as many theories suggest it will become increasingly harder for NASA to hide it from even a novice Astronomer as well as ordinary people happening to look up in the night sky. It also explains the environmental discord brought about by Magnetic/Gravitational disturbances to our entire solar system. our sun is showing symptoms via Increasing flares as well as the hint of all of the ‘falling stars’ … Even now as all of this stands in our face we fight and call each other nut jobs and loonies or uninformed idiots or unawakened fools…”

    I want to grab this dufus by the color, shake them around a little bit, and yell, “Tell me! Tell me, once and for all why NASA would hide ANYTHING? Show me the money that astronomers are personally raking in! Show me the positions of real power they are granted!” And “magnetic/gravitational disturbances to our entire solar system?” What dark and polyp-ridden part of his *** did he pull that one from?

  24. andy

    There’s also the argument that such a wide-separation object may not be a planet at all but a very low-mass brown dwarf, formed more like a star (albeit one that ended up below even the deuterium fusion mass) than a planet. We already have abundant evidence that the fusion criterion utterly fails at providing a reasonable boundary between planets and brown dwarfs, this would be yet one more nail in the coffin for the idea.

  25. Teknowaffle

    @Gonçalo Aguiar

    I work in consumer optics for amateur astronomy (this is a fancy way of saying my company sells telescopes)

    I have to deal with customers for part of this, and there are a surprising number who believe in Nibiru, and others crazy things, and want to use our equipment to find it. My favorite was a guy who no joke wanted to investigate some UFOs around Jupiter.

    There were “Like 4 of them man, moving each night”

  26. John Sandlin

    I wonder how closely they’ve narrowed down the part of the sky the suspected planet ought to be in at the moment.

    That far out, it should take a pretty good sized telescope to catch it. Neptune is about the limit of my telescope for real-time viewing (using my eyes rather than a CCD). If this thing exists, it’s 500 times more distant than Neptune.

    It’s interesting science even if there isn’t a gas giant out there.

  27. hugh57

    But scientists now believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, Wise, and is just waiting to be analysed.

    Another problem with the above sentence is the phrase “But scientists now believe…” By saying that instead of “But two scientists in Louisiana now believe…”, they make it sound like a consensus has been reached among scientists worldwide, which is clearly not the case.

  28. DrNecropolis

    More evidence to support FSM! Huzzah!
    Ra-men.

  29. Old Rockin' Dave

    In #7, Maria says, “I doubt we can get enough Nuclear weapons and aging (yet still oddly hot) Bruce Willises ready to do battle.”
    Of course not. This one will require us to call on the combined maximum efforts of Nicolas Cage, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.
    And, of course, President Danny Glover.

  30. Ken

    @10 Oli (to @4 Sir Eccles): More precisely, Neptune was discovered by its perturbations of Uranus. There then seemed to be residual perturbations that suggested a planet beyond Neptune. That led to the search that discovered Pluto, but that was just a lucky accident; it wasn’t large enough to produce the perturbations. Subsequent observations eventually eliminated the residual perturbations. The lack of such perturbations places severe limits on the orbit and mass of a giant planet in the outer system; basically it must be pretty far out, or not all that giant.

  31. Kevin

    The biggest reason we haven’t seen any big planets way ut there?

    Planetary cloaking devices.

    We will see these planets when we are meant to see them.
    (worked in Star Trek)

  32. Keith Bowden

    Again, reminds me of a story from 2001 Nights, the manga by Yukinobu Hoshino, featuring a giant planet 6-8 billion kilometers out from the sun named Lucifer. (The twist is that anti-matter collected to form this behemoth, and it’s where we mine the power source for interstellar travel.) It’s a great series (and is even available online as I discovered when I looked online to find the distance), available here:
    http://www.mangarush.com/manga/2001-nights/v-1/0/p-1.

  33. noen

    Tyche, sometimes it’s there, sometimes it isn’t.

    You can’t explain that.

  34. Martin Blaise

    The absence of a Jupiter-sized undiscovered extreme-outer planet spells the final doom for Hoagland & Bara’s dotty theories:

    http://dorkmission.blogspot.com/2011/02/hyperdimensional-fail.html

  35. Paul

    I thought Pan STARRS (when all four scopes are operating) is going to be able to detect Jupiter sized planets out to about 2000 AU.

  36. Procyon

    Very skeptical about a planet being able to be four times the size of Jupiter. That wouldn’t hold itself up, only stars with nuclear fusion in the core could grow to that size. If you kept adding mass to Jupiter, it would start to shrink after a while under gravitational compression, and the largest exoplanets we know of are just a bit bigger than Jupiter even though many are substantially more massive…

  37. Darrell E

    Two astronomers, John Matese and Dan Whitmire, have theorized about the possibility of a previously-undiscovered planet way beyond Pluto for some time.

    I know this is pretty nitpicky, to most people anyway, but I would like to suggest that in situations like this a better word choice would be hypothesized. You are a very good, and popular, science communicator. Sort of like a liason between scientists and non scientists. Who better than you to begin trying to change the public conception of what a theory is.

  38. Paul

    Procyon: they probably meant four times the mass.

  39. Scott

    @ND

    The number of people who will believe in pathetically ridiculous stuff is pathetically, ridiculously high.

    Seriously though I do wonder how we can find planets around other stars but would have not already found a planet that big in our solar system. I’d be very interested in Phil or someone else who knows more about this explain how this could happen.

  40. If it exists, 2500 AU means that it is two light-weeks away from us.

  41. Chris Winter

    There were “Like 4 of them man, moving each night.”

    Sounds like the same guy that wrote that famous note to Iain M. Banks: “I bet you smoke it, man, raw…” ;-)

  42. GFS

    @Scott

    it seems weird, but we’ve never really even directly imaged Pluto. When New Horizons gets there in 2015, it’ll send back the first images we’ve seen of the dwarf planet.

    it would likely be that this planet is simply too far away and appears so small that Hubble would miss it entirely.

    but I don’t fall in the camp of believers on this one. Show me the evidence first.

  43. @Michael Swanson,

    Don’t you realize that the absence of any evidence showing NASA making money/gaining power over hiding this giant planet is just proof that the evidence exists and they are covering this up too?!!

    Sadly, while I say this tongue in cheek, I’m sure many a conspiracy theorist would say this with a straight face. Lack of evidence is evidence of conspiracy?

  44. Doc Rocketscience

    I liked it better when it was called Nemesis. :(

  45. OtherRob

    A Facebook friend of mine posted about this so I came here to see if it was true. Thanks, Phil, for all the work you do. :)

  46. I can’t wait to hear more about WISE’s data. I won’t hold my breath hoping for a new planet but that sure would be groundbreaking.

    I liked it as Nemesis too :)

  47. 15 000 AU is a huge distance, granted, but it’s not at all unprecedented insofar as distant partners of Sol-like stars go. Proxima Centauri is 15 000 AU from the Alpha Centauri A-B pair, and the consensus seems to be that Proxima is bound to A-B.

    Presumably at such a distance the Matese/Whitmire planet would be the stillborn distant partner of Sol; conventional models of planetary formation couldn’t otherwise explain the formation of such a massive planet so far out.

  48. Buzz Parsec

    New Horizons, traveling at greater than solar escape velocity, took 13 months from launch to reach Jupiter and 29 months to cross Saturn’s orbit. Any planet (or comet) in an elliptical solar orbit must be traveling at less than escape velocity, and therefore would take longer to travel those distances. December 2012 is 22 months away, so if Niburu were to reach us then, it would currently have to be midway between Jupiter and Saturn. IT WOULD BE SO FREAKING OBVIOUS EVEN BART SIBREL COULD SEE IT!

  49. Larry

    @22. The effective temperature of a planet goes as d^(-1/2), where d is distance from planet to the Sun. At 15,000 AU, the planet is 3000 times Jupiter’s distance from the Sun. It’s Teff would be pretty darn cold…around 5K. Even assuming an internal temperature of 100K, the top of atmosphere Teff would be around 80K (http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1006/1006.4702v1.pdf). So this “planet” will be cold…and at a distance of 15,000 AU, a planet of 1.4 Rj would sub-tend an angle of 7 milliarc seconds. This thing will be cold and small.

  50. Assuming the planet did exist and assuming it has same albedo and diameter of Jupiter, what magnitude would it be?

  51. Chew

    @51 Arik Rice, the apparent magnitude would be 32.4. The Hubble cannot see objects fainter than magnitude 31.5.

  52. Jonathan Latimer

    You’re probably going to have to post and repost this article *monthly* until 2012 arrives… and then **weekly** until 2013 dawns…

    It still won’t convince the hardcore woo, but perhaps a mind or two will be open enough to learn…

  53. I think it would just be nice to have nine planets again. But really that would be a pretty nice find.

  54. Michael Simmons

    Phil Plait said
    “Let me be clear: while certainly possible, this idea is not at all proven, and in my opinion still pretty unlikely”

    Really at this point we have insufficient information to assign any probability to this.
    “pretty unlikely” is just as wrong as “pretty likely” or anything else anyone could say.
    We just don’t know.

    The Independent said
    “But scientists now believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, Wise, and is just waiting to be analysed.”

    This is just badly worded.
    It should have read
    “But some scientists now believe the proof of its existence may have already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, Wise, and is just waiting to be analysed.”

    Hyping this a little bit to encourage people to hunt though the WISE data once its released is in my opinion a very good idea.

  55. Nick L

    @49 Buzz Parsec: Unfortunately, the lunatics already have a response for that. They believe that its orbit is “unique” in that the sun will obscure Niburu until the “last moment”. That’s why we can’t see it yet. And yes, I know the celestial mechanics of that can be described by some combination of “You’re stupid”, “I’m calling the nice men with white coats and the padded station wagon” and “Who’s your dealer because I want what you’re smoking”.

  56. Bee

    why not ask one of the authors if they’d care to comment? do you know one of them?

  57. Arnd

    Even if WISE scanned all around and the planet is warm enough, there is still the possibility that because the planet is moving, WISE didn’t get it. If for example WISE was looking at spot A where the planet would be a few hours later and later will look at spot B where the planet was before it will not catch it. That’s what i think at least :).

  58. Obi Wan

    That’s no moon; it’s a space station.

  59. Could a planet like this possibly explain the highly eccentric orbit of Sedna? I’ve read speculation about the Sun having a partner star, but this seems more reasonable. A gas giant would certainly be much more difficult to spot with telescopes than another star right in our proverbial backyard. Could this thing (IF it exists) have enough gravity to distort the orbit of a smaller object to such a degree?

  60. Michel

    Now we wait for the perfect article on this on HufPoo.

  61. Anyone having a problem with perturbations in the orbit of Uranus should try Preparation H. Worked wonders on mine.

  62. Messier Tidy Upper

    Well by IAU definition this object orbiting far into the Edgeworth-Kuiper cometary belt or even Oort cloud couldn’t be a planet but rather must be a *dwarf* planet – even if its four times more massive and larger in radius than Jupiter!

    If it sounds ridiculously silly to be calling something potentially larger than Earth or Neptune or even Jupiter a “dwarf planet” then I agree completely – don’t get me started on just how dumb the IAU definition of “planet” is!

    I hope we do discover something like the Nemesis / Tyche hypothesis suggests although many previous searches have come up empty and I don’t hold great hopes for the idea being found to be true. If it is real I’m surprised the WISE survey hasn’t already found it & announcedit but then I guess that’s what the two in question are claiming so ..

  63. Messier Tidy Upper

    @31. Ken :

    @10 Oli (to @4 Sir Eccles): More precisely, Neptune was discovered by its perturbations of Uranus. There then seemed to be residual perturbations that suggested a planet beyond Neptune. That led to the search that discovered Pluto, but that was just a lucky accident; it wasn’t large enough to produce the perturbations. Subsequent observations eventually eliminated the residual perturbations. The lack of such perturbations places severe limits on the orbit and mass of a giant planet in the outer system; basically it must be pretty far out, or not all that giant.

    Incidentally Clyde Tombaugh didn’t stop after discovering Pluto – co-incidentally very close to its predicted position :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tombaugh,_C._W.#Further_search

    Also, off topic but in news just in :

    http://www.space.com/10858-nasa-valentines-comet-success.html

    The Stardust spaceprobe has successfully flown past Comet Tempel-1

  64. Hevach

    @59. No, it wouldn’t.
    Let’s see, 2006 IAU (pulling this from the last Pluto thread, not the exact wording I’m sure):
    1. is in orbit around the Sun,
    2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), and
    3. has “cleared the neighbourhood” around its orbit.

    1 is true.
    2 would be true if it were a fraction of the mass they claim.
    3 would be true if it were a fraction of the mass they claim and were a native planet, and would be in the process of becoming true if it were a captured planet.

    Distance is irrelevant. Point 3 is more of a case against the planet being there at all than for it being a dwarf planet – the fact that it has neither cleared its orbit eons ago nor begun to sew orbital chaos as it enters its new orbit are both arguments against there being a super-Jupiter out there.

  65. Messier Tidy Upper

    @49. Buzz Parsec :

    December 2012 is 22 months away, so if Niburu were to reach us then, it would currently have to be midway between Jupiter and Saturn. IT WOULD BE SO FREAKING OBVIOUS EVEN BART SIBREL COULD SEE IT!

    LOL! ;-)

    @ 38. Darrell E Says:

    “Two astronomers, John Matese and Dan Whitmire, have theorized about the possibility of a previously-undiscovered planet way beyond Pluto for some time.”

    I know this is pretty nitpicky, to most people anyway, but I would like to suggest that in situations like this a better word choice would be hypothesized. You are a very good, and popular, science communicator. Sort of like a liason between scientists and non scientists. Who better than you to begin trying to change the public conception of what a theory is. (Emphasis original.)

    Seconded by me. :-)

    @52. Chew Says:

    @51 Arik Rice, the apparent magnitude would be 32.4. The Hubble cannot see objects fainter than magnitude 31.5.

    Wow! That was good quick work. Thanks. :-)

  66. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 43. GFS Says:

    … it seems weird, but we’ve never really even directly imaged Pluto. When New Horizons gets there in 2015, it’ll send back the first images we’ve seen of the dwarf planet.

    Well I guess that depends on how you define things (again! ;-) ) we’ve certainly got photos of Pluto although none that show a great deal of detail – see :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2007/10/12/sharpest-image-of-pluto-ever-taken/

    &

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/02/04/hubble-catches-pluto-red-faced/

    For instance. Recall too that the other two smaller moons of Pluto – Nix and Hydra – were detected via the Hubble space observatory too!

    Indeed, even “amateur” astronomers can cleverly capture Pluto on film too like this :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/09/20/pluto-wanders-into-a-messier-situation/

    spectacular case. Technically speaking, that’s “directly imaged” (& the BA has taken decent Pluto images too) even if it does just look like a faint star *in* those direct images. ;-)

  67. There’s web rumors that a team of Spanish astronomers (Star view team) have confirmed the existance of a super large brown dwarf in oort cloud. Not sure to believe or not. :)

  68. Mike

    15000AU? That would put it about a quarter light-year away. Whew…no wonder we may not have seen it (if it’s there.)

  69. Michael Simmons

    Some other recent papers on this using different data

    On the anomalous secular increase of the eccentricity of the orbit of the Moon
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1102.0212

    Constraints on the location of a putative distant massive body in the Solar System and on the External Field Effect of MOND from recent planetary data
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1101.2634

  70. Kieron

    @20 MarkW

    It would be a right bugger waiting for a birthday :(

  71. @51. Arik Rice asked :

    Assuming the planet did exist and assuming it has same albedo and diameter of Jupiter, what magnitude would it be?

    One interesting take on that particular question is provided here :

    http://kencroswell.com/PlutoQuestion2.html

    By Ken Croswell. :-)

    @61. Hevach Says:

    @59. No, it wouldn’t.

    Yes it would! ;-) :-P

    Point 3 [has “cleared the neighbourhood” around its orbit.]
    is more of a case against the planet being there at all than for it being a dwarf planet – the fact that it has neither cleared its orbit eons ago nor begun to sew orbital chaos as it enters its new orbit are both arguments against there being a super-Jupiter out there.

    Point 3 in my veiw violates Occams razor and raises a whole lot of questions by itself. Not least of which what do you mean by “cleared” & how far does the “neighbourhood” extend?

    I do NOT think it is a logically valid or useful criterion for determining planethood but an ad hoc, superfluous, illogical and unhelpful one that causes more problems than it solves and believe it was imposed solely by those who for whatver reason wanted to dismiss Pluto (& Eris, Makemake, Sedna and the other ice dwarf class planets) from being counted as “proper planets.”

    In any case, I’m not at all sure that your contention that :

    the fact that it has neither cleared its orbit eons ago nor begun to sew orbital chaos as it enters its new orbit are both arguments against there being a super-Jupiter out there.

    is correct.

    My understanding is that a planet even of SuperJovian mass could not clear its orbit if it was located in the Edgeworth-Kuiper Cometary belt or further out and I gather this hypothetical planet has orbited there all along rather than having been recently captured – an idea which adds complications of its own.

  72. JupiterIsBig

    #60 Hevach – I don’t know the maths, but I understand that the earth couldn’t have cleared its orbit at Pluto’s distance from the Sun, in the time since the Big Expansion. Could Jupiter clear its orbit at 15000AU ?

  73. Nigel Depledge

    Larry (50) said:

    @22. The effective temperature of a planet goes as d^(-1/2), where d is distance from planet to the Sun. At 15,000 AU, the planet is 3000 times Jupiter’s distance from the Sun. It’s Teff would be pretty darn cold…around 5K. Even assuming an internal temperature of 100K, the top of atmosphere Teff would be around 80K

    Don’t forget that Jupiter (and thus, presumably, any planet of the same size) undergoes Kelvin-Heimholtz heating, which probably accounts for most of the insolation-independent thermal output of Jupiter.

  74. Jon D

    This would be awesome if it turns out to be true..

    Is this the same Whitmire who was in one of the teams that came up with the Nemesis hypothesis? Has he just changed his tune from star to planet now?

  75. Dan

    “evidence does not mean proof”

    yes it does! evidence means exactly proof. better evidence means better proof. I think what was meant was more, “evidence of the possibility does not mean there’s evidence that it’s happening here.”

    Since there’s evidence that it’s possible, that’s a certain degree of proof that it’s possible. Since we have little evidence that it’s happened here, we have little proof that there’s another big planet here.

    Ordinarily I wouldn’t be so upset except this is exactly the sort of mis-statement a creationist wingnut would latch on to. Mountains of evidence for evolution DOES mean proof of evolution. That’s how science works in all fields.

  76. jfb

    Teknowaffle @ 25:

    There were “Like 4 of them man, moving each night”

    Oh, that’s awesome.

  77. Joe

    These inaccuracies aren’t from Whitmire & Matese, we interviewed them: http://ultoday.com/node/3076

    Matese is VERY careful to use words like ‘conjecture’, ‘may’, ‘if’. They are well aware that Tyche is unproven.

  78. Jason

    Great, now Mike Brown and co will create yet another class of planetoid just to screw with us.

  79. Quiet Desperation

    it seems weird, but we’ve never really even directly imaged Pluto.

    Piffle. Here’s a map of the surface.

    Supposedly synthesized to depict true color. Pluto may turn out to be kind of pretty! Looking forward to the closeups.

  80. Michael Swanson

    READ THE LINK IN #81’s COMMENTS.

    It puts it all nicely into perspective, Joe. Thanks.

  81. Joseph G

    Fascinating stuff. It would be so cool if another planet were discovered, way out there.

    @1 Patrick: Another thing – if a huge gas-giant planet were going to clobber us within a year, wouldn’t it be visible? Like, to the naked eye, even? My understanding of the speeds involved is pretty sketchy, but wouldn’t something like that be at least as close as Uranus by now?
    Or did the NASA conspiracy paint it black so we can’t see it? :P

  82. Ron1

    @79. Dan Said: “Ordinarily I wouldn’t be so upset except this is exactly the sort of mis-statement a creationist wingnut would latch on to. ”

    Dan, welcome to the BA headbanger club.

    Cheers

  83. CB

    @ MTU:

    Well by IAU definition this object orbiting far into the Edgeworth-Kuiper cometary belt or even Oort cloud couldn’t be a planet but rather must be a *dwarf* planet – even if its four times more massive and larger in radius than Jupiter!

    A planet 4 times more massive than Jupiter would, most probably, out-mass the rest of the objects in its orbit by at least several orders of magnitude and thus readily fit the criterion of “clearing its neighborhood”, much like Jupiter out-masses all the smaller-but-plentiful objects in its orbit by a factor of 10^9, or Neptune out-masses all the TNOs by 10^5.

    If it sounds ridiculously silly to be calling something potentially larger than Earth or Neptune or even Jupiter a “dwarf planet” then I agree completely – don’t get me started on just how dumb the IAU definition of “planet” is!

    Which is how I feel about most criticism of the definition that seem to almost deliberately misunderstand it. ;)

  84. Keith Bowden

    I for one welcome our new Tychean overlords.

    (Sorry, I think I just stole someone else’s line!) :)

  85. CB

    yes it does! evidence means exactly proof. better evidence means better proof. I think what was meant was more, “evidence of the possibility does not mean there’s evidence that it’s happening here.”

    No, not really. Evidence is evidence, and better evidence is better evidence. Technically, “proof’ isn’t something that science ever achieves and is the sole province of mathematics. Less technically, even compelling evidence is not proof, because further evidence could still dis-prove it, which is what science is really about. It takes an inordinate amount of evidence to call something proven, such that the possibility of finding contrary evidence seems extremely remote, and even then could be considered exaggeration. Certainly, the amount of evidence Phil is talking about for this planet doesn’t count as any kind of proof.

    I understand that misunderstanding the nature of science, and how everything is technically a theory that can only be supported by evidence, or disproven, never proven to be capital-P capital-T Proven Truth.

    So what? We will have to deal with their misconceptions regardless. Changing our language so it’s less easy for them to deliberately misunderstand isn’t helping anything.

  86. réalta fuar

    Matese and Whitmire, though apparently competent dynamicists, seem to operate (like perhaps MOST theoriticians?) under the premise that they only have to be right ONCE, in order to become very famous. That’s actually probably true, since very few people will remember if the WISE data set doesn’t turn up their planet. But the fact remains that they have yet to EVER be correct about any of their major claims about the outer solar system. And, true to their operating premise, no one seems to remember…..

  87. Steve Bergman

    I spend a fair amount of time debunking “crap pseudoscience”. And I’ve stopped worrying about the Nibiru craze. It’s really not that consequential. People who lack critical thinking skills might suffer some unnecessary anxiety. But it gives them a chance to learn skepticism from the best teacher of all: experience. Many of the real nut-cases… the incurable ones… claim that they are planning suicides in late 2012. So we might, in fact, start seeing some benefits from this fad in 2013.

    I’m more concerned about the folks our there “proving” that the consensus cosmology is all wrong… completely misunderstanding what we do and don’t know about Dark Matter… mischaracterizing the significance of Dark Energy… and then proposing their own pseudoscience replacement. e.g. the so-called “Plasma Cosmology”, “Electric Universe” (which is even worse, if you can believe it), and Creationism… err “Intelligent Design” variations like Barry Setterfield’s C-Decay “theory”, which “proves” that the Universe is only 10,000 years old.

  88. Matt

    The media irresponsibility and woo gets worse, I’m afraid: I saw an article about this on cnn’s website this morning, and it stated much of what Phil quoted from the articles above. But then it inexplicably included the following, “Its 27 million-year orbit could also explain a pattern of mass extinctions on earth, scientists say.”
    *Sigh*

  89. TerryS.

    Ive been in communication with my masters and now know that this is our orbiting space station monitoring Earth from a distance. Do not point any device towards us that could be interpreted as a weapon, as we will defend ourselves with deadly force.

    Hmm, but then we won’t have anything to monitor. Never mind!

  90. Joseph G

    @ 91 Steve Bergman: It’s really not that consequential. People who lack critical thinking skills might suffer some unnecessary anxiety. But it gives them a chance to learn skepticism from the best teacher of all: experience.

    I’m afraid I’m not so optimistic. Look at the huge number of psychics and soothsayers and contactees and various types of woo gurus who have predicted all manner of stuff over the years, had it fail to come to pass, and still had a huge following anyway. The aliens changed their minds, or God was speaking in metaphors, yadda yadda. They always have an excuse, and amazingly, people always buy it. Just watch, someone will come along and go “Ohh, ok, my date was wrong. It’s actually happening on the 20th of December (20/12) in the year 2026. Yeah, that’s it!”

  91. Egad

    > Wow, a planet orbiting at 15,000 AUs??? That’s insanely far! What’s the projected orbital period of a planet out that far?

    If it’s in a somewhat circular orbit, around 1.8 million years.

  92. Caleb Jones

    “There are many variations here. Basically it boils down to only one statement that can be said with certainty: if [WE DIRECTLY] observe it, it exists. But if it’s not [DIRECTLY OBSERVED BY US], that doesn’t prove anything one way or another; it narrows the possibilities down and gives us an upper limit on [WHAT ITS ATTRIBUTES] might be. But we’d need to keep looking for it.”

    This is the basis of religious faith I have and which I’ve heard expressed by several of my religious, yet rational, friends/family. This to me is respectable. I, at least, don’t claim to have ever directly observed god (however one wants to define that), yet I choose to correlate various personal indirect observations (thoughts, feelings, events, patterns, etc.) to the possibility of a god existing (again however loosely that is defined). One may disagree with these correlations but must ultimately agree and respect that as long as I remain open to accepting new information/observations there’s nothing inherently irrational about that position. The irrationality of faith comes from the refusal to accept new facts which contradict ones faith (which we sadly see far too often).

    There is, of course, a slippery slope here as one could fall into the True Scotsman fallacy. But as long as one remains dedicated to accepting new observations and honestly weighing them against beliefs already held, this can be avoided.

  93. Wzrd1

    Wonderful news! Now, CNN has picked up the blithering idiocy.
    But, be warned, 2012 IS coming. Along with all the annoying tin foil hat hysteria…

  94. mcc

    I propose we call hypothetical gas giants detectable only by influence on comets “dark planets”, just so we can maximize confusion with the already-unrelated “dark matter”, “dark energy” and “dark flow” and ensure no one can understand what scientists are talking about ever.

    So looking around I find that this team talking about Tyche has actually been talking about it for at least a year, for example they had this paper last April: http://xxx.lanl.gov/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1004/1004.4584v1.pdf and I also find articles from last November.

    I’m also finding this image, credited to a “Ben McGee” (?) showing up in many news articles about the Tyche hypothesis: http://astrowright.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/tyche-pic.jpg

    Two things I wonder: What, exactly, caused this explosion of articles about Tyche in the last few days? And also, what is the origin of this “Ben McGee” image? The thing that startles me about the Ben McGee image is that it shows Tyche’s orbit crossing Pluto’s. What kind of period would that orbit have? Wouldn’t that eventually interfere badly with Pluto’s orbit?

  95. JupiterIsBig

    Hey, what’s the story with the comment numbers ???
    When I posted a reply to Hevach, he was #60 – now it’s 66 !

  96. cesium62

    In order to be a planet, Tyche would have had to clear its orbit, which I’m thinking is unlikely that far out. Which raises the question, what would you call a gas giant orbiting in the oort cloud?

  97. Great post as usual, Phil. Yeah, when I went to bed last night and saw that there was an article about Tyche (the hypothetical large object in the outer Solar System) and WISE, I thought, ‘”Oh, that’s nice that someone mentioned WISE.” Then this morning we start hearing that people are freaking out because WISE has discovered the 9th planet that will kill us all! Geesh, people love to freak out, don’t they?

    This is nothing new. WISE was designed to look for brown dwarfs, among other things, and this hypothetical world would essentially be a very cool brown dwarf. The WISE science team had been thinking about the possibility of detecting large objects in the outer Solar System for a while. WISE was sensitive enough to see Jupiter at a distance of 1 light-year from the Sun (about out to the Oort Cloud). So if this object exists WISE should have seen it. But we haven’t had time to analyze all the data yet to even know if we have a candidate object to follow-up on. It will probably be well into next year (and maybe longer) before we have done a complete analysis.

  98. DigitalAxis

    #36 Paul: PanSTARRS is looking for EXTRAsolar planets; in those cases the planet will be very close on the sky to its parent star. In this case, we have the entire sky to search. Well, except that Maltese & Whitman have a better idea of where to look for it.

    #56. Arnd:

    This thing might not even move a single pixel-width during the entire WISE mission:

    0.25 ly = 0.0767 pc = 15817 AU (ok, so we’re back to 15000 AU)

    With Kepler’s third law P^2=A^3, that implies P=A^(3/2), or 1.8 million years.
    Assuming the orbit is circular, which it has to be on average, the planet will move 1 degree every 5100 years, or 1 arcsecond every 1.4 years, and the WISE mission had maybe 1 arcsecond precision on its images.

    0.7″/yr is a relatively large proper motion that more conventional telescopes can easily spot. Of course, that’s 0.7″/yr of orbital motion ON TOP OF the Sun’s motion relative to the background stars, so I think it would be much much higher… but we’re still talking about an object that won’t move terribly much between WISE images.

    #90. réalta fuar :

    Maltese & Whitman aren’t at fault for this; the media accidentally sensationalized their story.
    I mean, if you’re looking for a giant distant planet in the solar system, you SHOULD check WISE (and Herschel, and JWST when it exists) to look for it.

  99. Jokodo

    @andy (#13)
    “There’s also a whole load of evidence from observations of young stars that massive planets on very wide orbits are extremely rare around solar-type stars. Typically the searches come up empty.”
    Most methods wouldn’t detect them, so their non-detection isn’t evidence of anything.
    Transits? Figure the chances of an orbital plane being so well aligned with our line of sight that the planet would pass in front of the star, with such a large orbit. Pretty dim. And even if it were, planets detected through transits aren’t considered as confirmed lest we manage to observe several cycles – which would mean millenia of continuous observation for that kind of planet.
    Orbital accelaration? Immeasurable. Also, the accelaration wouldn’t change over the period of observation so it would just be considered part of the star’s specific velocity if it could be measured.

    The search is expected to come up empty even if the average star had three of those.

  100. But scientists now believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, Wise, and is just waiting to be analysed.

    The first tranche of data is to be released in April, and astrophysicists John Matese and Daniel Whitmire from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette think it will reveal Tyche within two years. “If it does, John and I will be doing cartwheels,” Professor Whitmire said. “And that’s not easy at our age.”

    [Phil]: “Note that first line: it makes it seem as if the proof of the planet is already in the data. We just need to find it!”

    No, that “first line” says nothing of the sort. It says that scientists “believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered.” No one with both working brain hemispheres could construe that as suggesting that anything had been proven.

    Alas, once you’ve donned the mantle of “protector-of-the-astronomically-ignorant,” it’s hard to give that up, ay, Phil?

  101. Messier Tidy Upper

    @104. cesium62 Says:

    In order to be a planet, Tyche would have had to clear its orbit, which I’m thinking is unlikely that far out. Which raises the question, what would you call a gas giant orbiting in the oort cloud?

    A dwarf gas giant planet? ;-)

    @103. JupiterIsBig Says:

    Hey, what’s the story with the comment numbers ???
    When I posted a reply to Hevach, he was #60 – now it’s 66!

    Comments awaiting moderation that pass moderation pop up after being moderated and throw the numbering out for comments after them.

    Afraid I’m one of the culprit here with a quite a few comments containing links which always go into moderation. I guess I could disable the links but then I like being able to click on them directly, it sort of deafeats the point of having them at least a little.

    My proposed fix would be to have the comments appearing in order that they *passed moderation* rather than in chronological order of being originally posted but I’m not sure whether that can be done. BA? (or do you prefer Phil?)

    @87. CB : Which is how [ridiculously silly] I feel about most criticism of the definition that seem to almost deliberately misunderstand it.

    No, I understand the IAU’s definition quite well thankyou. I just strongly disagree with it and I have already explained why many times here before.

    Here’s a thought for you to consider : if the IAU definition leads to confusion and unnecessary complications as this one does then perhaps it needs to be changed so it no longer causes those problems.

    IOW : the “orbital clearance” criterion needs to be dropped & a simpler, better definition needs to replace it. I’ve suggested a couple of definitions before namely the original and superior proposed definition thata planet was :

    1) Never shining by nuclear fusion ie. not a star,
    2) Gravitationally rounded ie. not an asteroid or comet.
    3) Not directly orbiting another planet ie. not a moon.

    Or as in the case of defining hill versus mountain we could just set an arbitrary cut-off point which I suggest be the size of Ceres.

    Plus another thought for you : If some hypothetical large body suddenly appeared in the Earth’s orbit (say a planetoid captured from the Ooort cloud) then broke apart creating an asteroid belt where Earth is now – would our planet become a dwarf planet? No? Why exactly is it that planets cannot be located in asteroid or cometoid belts?

    Finally, Mercury and Earth are planets because they orbit where they do now. If you took Earth or Mercury (or for that matter, Neptune or Jupiter) and plonked them into the Oort cloud then theycouldn’t clear their orbits and would stop being planets. Even though nothing about them had changed but their orbital distance! That does seem ridiculously silly to me & I’m baffled as to why it doesn’t to you also.

    I think its way overdue time that the IAU just admitted they got it horribly wrong and came up with something better.

  102. Rene

    I’ll look forward for the WISE telescope results in April. I for one do not come from the world-is-flat-camp. It sounds like there are a lot of the world-is-flat campers here…lol…

  103. amphiox

    Personally, I think we should keep the dwarf planet/planet distinction but move it one category lower (ie, make dwarf planets count as planets) and change the “clear the orbit” to “constitutes the majority (>50%) of the mass within the orbit”. That should resolve any confusion about a earth sized object in the Kuiper Belt or a gas giant in the Oort Cloud.

    More distinctions should also be added to separate Jupiter-type planets from Neptune-type planets from terrestrial-type planets, with additional categories to be added as more extrasolar planets are characterized.

  104. amphiox

    Jokodo #107, I think andy #13, with respect to “observations of young stars” was referring to observations of very young stars with protoplanetary disks that seem to indicate that large planets will not or cannot form in orbits that far out from the star, rather than direct observations or detectios of planets. (A very large and very young planet that far out could I think be detected by the direct visualization techniques that are just lately getting good enough to directly image extrasolar planets, though detecting the orbital motion needed to distinguish them from a background object might be tricky)

    This of course doesn’t rule out the possibility of capturing a planet or ejecting one from closer in.

  105. andy

    @Jokodo: I was referring to direct imaging searches, the kind that have detected the long-period planets around Fomalhaut and HR 8799 and also a more “classical” planet around Beta Pictoris. These searches typically target young stars because the gas giants haven’t cooled off so much and thus put out more thermal radiation. And yes, these surveys are good enough to put limits on the very wide-orbit giant planets. Typically you find they aren’t there.

    @Messier Tidy Upper: stop obsessing over the semantics of the IAU definition. It is fairly clear what is meant is “not a member of a belt of objects”, and none of the 8 major planets are. Pluto turns out to be a member of the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt and is thus not a planet by a reasonable dynamical criterion, and also by historical precedent dating back to the demotion of Ceres and other asteroids. Furthermore your fusion criterion is demonstrably inadequate to describe several observed exoplanetary systems, e.g. Upsilon Andromedae, BD+20 2457, Nu Ophiuchi…

  106. If such an object moves in Wise data, it should be “easy” to spot. Even if it doesn’t move, Wise data can be compared to visible, or other data. “Hot but dim” objects should appear in Wise, but not visible, for example. There may be lots of these. They may all be worthy of followup. If computer searches of Wise data is difficult, perhaps a Wise Zoo project could put lots of eyes on the problem.

    On the one hand, one might wonder why a scientist would tell the media that they want to look for planets in Wise data. If it’s a good idea, maybe others will look, potentially beating them. Perhaps giving their idea to the media could help get funding. The media is not as harsh a critic as peer review. Though, the quality of comments here might be as harsh.

    As far as i know, the HST’s limiting magnitude is limited by how long the exposure is. Each additional magnitude will require a factor of 2.5 more time. HST time is incredibly expensive, and any time given to research like this will have to pass peer review. There’s going to have to be some seriously good evidence that the beast exists, and there’s going to have to be a compelling argument that HST time will lead to learning something. Most proposals don’t get HST time. The Hershel is slightly bigger, and infrared. It’s time is limited by cryogen. But if Wise saw it, Hershel can. Spitzer is tiny, and in it’s warm phase. But it’s still available. If what you want is visible light data, perhaps a big ground based scope is better for followup. They’re capable and cheaper.

  107. CB

    @MTU

    No, I understand the IAU’s definition quite well thankyou. I just strongly disagree with it and I have already explained why many times here before.

    Yes, and I’ve read them, and they always seem to involve serious misconceptions, like that a 4x-Jupiter-mass object in the Oort cloud would necessarily be a dwarf planet. It almost certainly would not, any more than Neptune is a dwarf planet because of the many KPO objects in its neighborhood which combined are less than 1/10000th of its mass.

    Here’s a thought for you to consider : if the IAU definition leads to confusion and unnecessary complications as this one does then perhaps it needs to be changed so it no longer causes those problems.

    But I don’t see any confusion, except created by those trying to find a way to discredit it by saying it causes confusion. There isn’t a single known object in the solar system whose categorization by the IAU definition isn’t perfectly clear. When there’s a 4 order of magnitude difference between the greatest of the dwarf planets, and the least of the planets, nobody should be confused.

    Or as in the case of defining hill versus mountain we could just set an arbitrary cut-off point which I suggest be the size of Ceres.

    Why would one define an arbitrary cut-off, when there’s an actual difference between objects based on their orbits? Why would you create a definition where the reasonably probable case of there existing an object of slightly lower mass than Ceres (or slightly greater mass if you meant Ceres was the biggest a dwarf planet could be), raising the question of why it doesn’t qualify and Ceres does? Instead, why not pick a criterion for which no arbitrarily precise line needs to be drawn, because the distinction is huge and obvious?

    It’s like the IAU is distinguishing between Eurasia and the Americas by saying they’re separated by the Atlantic Ocean, and you’re saying no that’s confusing, let’s distinguish Europe and Asia by drawing some arbitrary line through it. Yeah, that’s so much better and less confusing.

    Plus another thought for you : If some hypothetical large body suddenly appeared in the Earth’s orbit (say a planetoid captured from the Ooort cloud) then broke apart creating an asteroid belt where Earth is now – would our planet become a dwarf planet? No? Why exactly is it that planets cannot be located in asteroid or cometoid belts?

    Planets can be located in asteroid or comet belts. The question is, does the planet dominate the orbit or is it dominated by the belt objects? That’s the difference between Neptune and Pluto, and it’s a 10^6 difference so not exactly a matter of drawing an arbitrary line.

    This hypothetical object in earth’s orbit — did it break up because earth’s gravity was enough to tear it apart? Then it would certainly be of small enough mass that earth’s orbit would still be called clear. If it isn’t, then why exactly did it break apart, with all the pieces in stable earth-like orbits? Because you willed it to be so? Well you could will Pluto to have enough mass to clear its orbit, but it doesn’t, so what?

    My point being: Things don’t just spring into existence in whatever arbitrary pattern you want. Objects and their orbits are the result of laws of physics, and so far those laws seem to imply that sufficiently large objects will either absorb or kick out the majority of other material in their orbits such that they are clearly dominant.

    If and when cases in the currently unoccupied grey area show up, and our understanding of orbital dynamics increases to encompass them, then we can worry about improving our definitions to accommodate them, based on reality, not hypotheticals.

    @ amphiox:

    Personally, I think we should keep the dwarf planet/planet distinction but move it one category lower (ie, make dwarf planets count as planets) and change the “clear the orbit” to “constitutes the majority (>50%) of the mass within the orbit”. That should resolve any confusion about a earth sized object in the Kuiper Belt or a gas giant in the Oort Cloud.

    First, let me be clear that I don’t really care about the terms “planet” and “dwarf planet” as such. The criticism of the IAU definition that I tend to agree with is the semantic one, where it’s kinda weird that an “dwarf planet” doesn’t count as a kind of “planet”. I’m happy with “dwarf planet” and “super planet” or “planet” and “uberplanet”. I only care that the distinction between objects too small to clear their orbit and those that can be recognized in some way.

    Second, while I like your idea, I do not think we should draw a line now that would necessarily be arbitrary or based on a guess. As I keep saying, right now there’s a several-order-of-magnitude gulf between the two categories of objects with no objects occupying the gray area. What if further study shows that there are lots of objects between the current max-dwarf ratio of 0.33 to, say, 1.5, but then nothing between that and a ratio of 1,000? It wouldn’t make any sense to draw the line at 1.0 in defiance of the actual distinction.

  108. amphiox

    CB, that’s a good point you make about the arbitrariness of the 50%, which I freely admit I just made up for the sake of argument.

    Should it not be possible to determine what the ratio should be, though, using computer modeling? On the assumption that our theories about planet formation are correct that all planets essentially form out of a belt of debris, it should be possible to calculate what the maximum proportion of the total mass within the belt that can be coalesced into a single object is, above which the belt is no longer stable and will be cleared either by ejection, absorption, capture as moons, or shepherding into stable areas like Lagrange points of all the smaller objects?

    Or would it make sense to use the ratio for the maximum mass relative to the orbital primary for a secondary object to remain stably at an L4 or L5 Lagrange point?

    That ratio could be set for the definition, leaving open the possibility of changing in the future if later observations show that a change is necessary?

  109. Green pea galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey look to me a lot like early images of Uranus. But I’m no expert.

  110. Not sure what Gizmodo has to do with it. They aren’t a scientific journal by any means. io9.com should be making comments about this before Gizmodo. Gizmodo is just a blog and taking their comments as any attempt to be truthful should be met with skepticism since they generally summarize and title their articles with sensationalism in mind and no real effort to prove any facts.

  111. Jacob

    I have had a couple classes with Dr. Whitmire and heard Dr. Matese give a lecture on some of their data a few months back. To me, this is defiantly an example of the media taking things to far. They told the physics department at a meeting to come to here to get the best information about their work.

  112. KNilsson

    Way to go Phil !!
    You made TIME magazine!!
    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2049641,00.html?xid=rss-topstories&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+time%2Ftopstories+%28TIME%3A+Top+Stories%29&utm_content=Google+International

    Hehe…Your quote (7th paragraph) is CLASSIC: “This is not a crazy idea” says Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait.

    LOL….for better or worse you are moving up in the world (TIME Magazine is a big step up from Huffpo) I guess you will need to start wearing dark sun glasses when you go to the store to keep from getting mobbed by autograph hounds. (not to mention the guy selling maps to the “Stars” homes in Colorado….Cough, cough)

    Seriously though, Your article (and BA) ROCKS, as always. Thanks for keeping us (correctly) updated.

  113. Brandon

    We SEEM them as long period comets?

    Beyond that, great article!

  114. ObiDanKinobi

    What if this bad-ass planet swung through our inner planets once before…., maybe thats what the asteroid belt in between mars and jupiter is eh? Ex planet. Its funny how if you look at the planets they all follow a rough pattern except in between mars and jupiter, where there is instead an orbitting asteroid field.

    It would also be a tragic twist of fate if it was indeed the kepler telescope that discovered this earth destroying planet.

    Its not going to happen in 2012 though. Chillax.

    Besides its the two-tailed comet we need to be on the lookout for not a planet. But there will be a massive evacuation of earth before that happens, so again chillax.

    Interesting stuff though mos def.

  115. Yeebok Shu'in

    Gizmodo is popular ? That’s the most outlandish thing I have ever heard, Phil.

  116. Anoncow

    Seems the Journal of Cosmology are showing their colors once more. In the article on Tyche on the cosmology.org site right now, the author expresses his/her opinion like this: “The torches and pitchforks crowd, led by astronomer-wannabe Phil Plait claims its not so. But then, Plait’s most famous discovery was finding one of his old socks when it went missing after a spin in his dryer. ”

    Astronomer-wannabe, helloo?! I’m assuming this is the same Phil Plait who worked on the Hubble for a decade? I think I know who I’d rather trust on matters Astronomical.

  117. Anna

    Chuck Norris is going to kick the planet away if it bothers him…

  118. Messier Tidy Upper

    @116. CB :

    @MTU : “No, I understand the IAU’s definition quite well thankyou. I just strongly disagree with it and I have already explained why many times here before.”
    Yes, and I’ve read them, and they always seem to involve serious misconceptions, like that a 4x-Jupiter-mass object in the Oort cloud would necessarily be a dwarf planet. It almost certainly would not, any more than Neptune is a dwarf planet because of the many KPO objects in its neighborhood which combined are less than 1/10000th of its mass.

    But it would still be located in an “unclear” orbit so would still not count as a proper planet but would be termed a dwarf instead.

    You claim my arguments are misconceptions, I maintain that they’re accurate conceptions. We see this very differently.

    But I don’t see any confusion, except created by those trying to find a way to discredit it by saying it causes confusion.

    You aren’t the only person on the planet. Just because *you* are not confused does NOT mean other people feel the same as you do. Can you not see how others could find things confusing and that a clearer, simpler, better definition would be, well, better?

    There isn’t a single known object in the solar system whose categorization by the IAU definition isn’t perfectly clear.

    O really? :roll:

    I don’t think that’s actually the case – I think there is considerable doubt among many people over what the status of dwarf planets is – and I can point to textbook examples for you – same for Ceres and others. Ill also note that there are many astronomers who disagree with and reject the IAU definition too. See what Alan Stern had to say about it for instance.

    When there’s a 4 order of magnitude difference between the greatest of the dwarf planets, and the least of the planets, nobody should be confused.

    Do you mean apparent magnitude as in brightness or metaphorically magnitude as in mass /size range?

    Do you mean planets as in the planets of all stars or just those found in our solar system?

    Ironically, I find your assertion there potentially confusing.

    “Or as in the case of defining hill versus mountain we could just set an arbitrary cut-off point which I suggest be the size of Ceres.” [Me.]

    Why would one define an arbitrary cut-off, when there’s an actual difference between objects based on their orbits?

    Because the differences in orbits really aren’t that great or I think significant – Pluto and Eris have inclined orbits eccentric orbits but then so does Mercury to a lesser extent. Pluto and Ceres have other bodies orbiting with them but then so too does Neptune and Jupiter – remember their trojan co-orbitals?

    Also because there’s a far more obvious and better defining quality that raises far fewer problems than orbit – and that’s roundess.

    Planets come in a vast range of sizes, masses, compositions and orbits from worlds far bigger than Jupiter that are boarderline to brown dwarfs and made of gas through to worlds like Earth and at the other extreme of the continuum worlds like Pluto that are made of rock and ice that are boarderline to asterpoid or comet nuclei. Earth has more in common

    To paraphrase Dr Suess : A planet’s a planet no matter how small! ;-)
    – End Part I – Broken into sections for easier consumption –

  119. Messier Tidy Upper

    CORRECTION – That was supposed to read :

    Planets come in a vast range of sizes, masses, compositions and orbits* from worlds far bigger than Jupiter that are on the boarderline with brown dwarfs and made almostentirely of gas are at one extreme. The continuum of objects nature builds then ranges down through ice gianst or gas dwarfs like Neptune and Mustafar-like superEarth’s like CoROT 7b and Kepler-11b through to worlds like Earth and Mercury that are mostly rocky. All the way to the most familiar idea of planet to most people – probably. All the way to the other extreme of the planetary continuum where we have worlds like Pluto and Sedna that are made of rock and ice that are boarderline to asteroid or comet nuclei.

    Earth has more in common with the latter ice dwarf worlds than the former gas giant ones. In some ways it would make more sense to say gas giants aren’t planets but rather something very different in nature than the ice dwarfs!

    To paraphrase Dr Suess : A Planet’s a planet no matter how small!

    ———-

    * Like The Comet-orbit planet or ‘Icarus’ planet HD 80606b the mostextreme of a whole large class of eccentrically orbiting exoplanets. See “Weather sizzles on a planet that kisses its star” posed on this BA blog January 28th, 2009. There are also planets such as HD 45364 b & c that are analogous to Neptune & Pluto in their orbital relationship. (See Ken Croswell’s article ‘Extrasolar Neptune-Pluto Analogue Discovered’ posted on February 18, 2009 avail on his website.)

    We wouldn’t deny these worlds the title of Planet so why treat Pluto & the other ice dwarfs so badly?

  120. Messier Tidy Upper

    *** PART II continuing ***********

    @116. CB :

    Why would you create a definition where the reasonably probable case of there existing an object of slightly lower mass than Ceres (or slightly greater mass if you meant Ceres was the biggest a dwarf planet could be), raising the question of why it doesn’t qualify and Ceres does? Instead, why not pick a criterion for which no arbitrarily precise line needs to be drawn, because the distinction is huge and obvious?

    Um.. yeah Like gravitationally forced roundness for instance? ;-)

    It’s like the IAU is distinguishing between Eurasia and the Americas by saying they’re separated by the Atlantic Ocean, and you’re saying no that’s confusing, let’s distinguish Europe and Asia by drawing some arbitrary line through it. Yeah, that’s so much better and less confusing.

    No, its like the IAU saying that Australia and Antartica are islands instead of continents because they’re small & not joined up with other landmasses.

    Planets can be located in asteroid or comet belts.

    Tell that to the IAU, its not what their definition says! ;-)

    The question is, does the planet dominate the orbit or is it dominated by the belt objects? That’s the difference between Neptune and Pluto, and it’s a 10^6 difference so not exactly a matter of drawing an arbitrary line.

    Except that Pluto does dominate its orbit – it holds Charon, Hydra and Nix inits thralland has other bodies suchas Orcus (I think it is) locked into a relationship where it stays away from Pluto. That gets into the semantics of what is meant by “domination” etc ..

    This hypothetical object in earth’s orbit — did it break up because earth’s gravity was enough to tear it apart? Then it would certainly be of small enough mass that earth’s orbit would still be called clear. If it isn’t, then why exactly did it break apart, with all the pieces in stable earth-like orbits? Because you willed it to be so? Well you could will Pluto to have enough mass to clear its orbit, but it doesn’t, so what?

    It doesn’t matter for the purpose of this hypothetical – in fact there could be many hypotheticals where each of these scenarios is considered.

    If and when cases in the currently unoccupied grey area show up, and our understanding of orbital dynamics increases to encompass them, then we can worry about improving our definitions to accommodate them, based on reality, not hypotheticals.

    Just like the neutrino, brown dwarfs & black holes were purely hypotheticals that scientists just scornfully dismissed and completely ignored until they were found?

    Oh wait, no, the exact *opposite* actually happened! :roll:

    Science works on hypothesising and imagining – then observing and finding.

    It seems nature builds planets in a range of sizes from superjovian near brown dwarfs to ice dwarfs like Pluto. Let’s not ignore possibilities and rule them out withoutr good reason to do so.

    Let’s have the foresight and imagination to adopt a suitably broad and incluusive definition that allows space for us to all sorts of planets and planet types – and the menagerie of alien worlds we’re finding keeps getting ever stranger and more wonderful! :-)

  121. Messier Tidy Upper

    @114. andy :

    @Messier Tidy Upper: stop obsessing over the semantics of the IAU definition.

    I’ll thank you NOT to tell me what to do with *my* life just as I’m not going to tell *you* what to do with yours. :-(

    It is fairly clear what is meant is “not a member of a belt of objects”, and none of the 8 major planets are.

    It is? Really? I disagree. Neptune and Jupiter are located amidst belts of objects – their own trojans; comets cross all planet orbits thus rendering them technically “unclear” and “fairly clear” to who anyhow? Is the IAU definition good enough and really one that works? I don’t think so!

    Pluto turns out to be a member of the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt ..

    Just as our Earth turns out to be a member of the inner solar system region and the gas giants are located in what we now know is the “middle zone” of our solar system. Big deal.

    ..and is thus not a planet by a reasonable dynamical criterion,

    You think the orbital dynamical criterion is reasonable then? I do not.

    As long as a planet isn’t directly orbiting another planet and thus becomes a moon rather than an independent globe then I don’t think its orbit matters in terms of its definition as a planet. As I’ve already noted in comment #136, we now of many planets that are in very strange and far more eccentric orbits than Pluto’s case.

    ..and also by historical precedent dating back to the demotion of Ceres and other asteroids.

    Funny you should mention Ceres there. It was originally considered a planet, got temporarily demoted then more recently promoted halfway back. I hope Pluto’s demotion is likewise a temporary aberration, a mistake that gets fixed and that Ceres also gets returned to planet status.

    Furthermore your fusion criterion is demonstrably inadequate to describe several observed exoplanetary systems, e.g. Upsilon Andromedae, BD+20 2457, Nu Ophiuchi…

    That’s a more interesting note there. I would be happy to class such examples as brown dwarfs instead of exoplanets but I agree there may well be overlap between the brown dwarfs & highest mass superjovian categories. There is scope for an interesting debate there – but such cases certainly don’t exclude Pluto from planethood. Unless that is you’re claiming Pluto is a brown dwarf! ;-)

  122. This is probably the best astronomy blog I’ve ever read. I’ll read news articles about new planets and all types of things but then I come here and they are all debunked and written the way all the other ones should be written; With it being a possibility, not a fact. Great information here. I read Time’s article about this, which linked to you, then read this article.

    I think another reason things like this go viral is because people are only reading the titles of articles “New Giant Planet Orbiting The Sun” leads people to believe that’s what is going on. If you read the articles they (not all, but some) tell you it’s not a fact and it’s just an idea/possibility.

    As a new astronomer, this is my number one source for the truth to other articles I might read that stretch the truth or twist it in a way to make you believe that possibility is fact. I’m trying to turn my blog into an astronomy blog but I can only do so much with the little knowledge I have on the subject. Don’t want to lead people in the wrong direction by stating something that isn’t true.

    Thanks Phil, for this blog.

    -Mike

  123. andy

    I disagree. Neptune and Jupiter are located amidst belts of objects – their own trojans; comets cross all planet orbits thus rendering them technically “unclear” and “fairly clear” to who anyhow?

    Are you saying you can see no distinction between Jupiter (mass 317 times that of Earth) and the Jupiter trojans (total mass approximately 0.0001 times that of the Earth) because they are located in a similar region of space? Really?

    Or to take an analogy, imagine a box filled with large numbers of iron filings and also a small number of iron cannonballs. Would you argue that the cannonballs cannot be regarded as distinct from the iron filings? That is what you are doing when you are saying that you cannot distinguish Jupiter from the various debris located around its orbit.

    Let me make this very clear for you: JUPITER IS NOT A MEMBER OF THE JUPITER TROJANS. If you think there is any case to be made that Jupiter is a member of this population, there is no hope for you. Plot the distribution of masses of objects crossing its orbit and it is such an extreme outlier that there can be no question about this.

  124. Nigel Depledge

    @ MTU et al. –

    On the discussion over Pluto’s status…

    How about we leave it to the professional astronomers to define their terms, hmmm?

    If they want to include terms about gravitationally dominating a region of space, then let them. If they want to define planets by colour (they don’t, to the best of my knowledge), then that also is their prerogative.

    After all, no-one here owns those things out there, so let’s just leave it to those who study such things for a living.

  125. Kid cool

    I don’t know Phil, if they find this planet, does that mean you’ll owe Nancy at Zetatalk an apology?
    ;)

  126. Puzzeled in CA

    RA 5h53m43.76s Dec – 5 59’37.52” 0 02’00.91” arcdegrees

    This is the article I have been looking for to ask this question…
    Will someone please explain the numerous constellation/star/sky Mapping software; (GOOGLE EARTH, MICROSOFT, BING, POSSIBLY OTHERS?) THAT ALL HAVE THE EXACT SAME PART OF THE SKY, EDITTED OUT BY A BLACK SQUARE ABOUT 2X2 INCHES WIDE…. I have found it and forgive me for my lack of coordinate reading skills but this is where I found it on Google Earth:

    RA 5h53m43.76s Dec – 5 59’37.52” 0 02’00.91” arcdegrees

  127. Messier Tidy Upper

    @141. Nigel Depledge Says:

    @ MTU et al. – On the discussion over Pluto’s status…How about we leave it to the professional astronomers to define their terms, hmmm? If they want to include terms about gravitationally dominating a region of space, then let them. If they want to define planets by colour (they don’t, to the best of my knowledge), then that also is their prerogative.After all, no-one here owns those things out there, so let’s just leave it to those who study such things for a living.

    Three things about that :

    1) That’s a fallacy of authority right there. Just because an “expert” says something doesn’t mean its right. There are cases where scientists get it wrong – even Einstein admits to some blunders while it was common for scientists such as Lord Kelvin to deny the possibility of heavier than air travel and especially space travel at one time.

    2) The professional astronomers themselves disagree on this issue. Alan Stern, for example, called the IAU definition “idiotic”, Ken Croswell has spoken out against it as have others. The IAU meeting that made the decision was in many ways rather dubious and questionable.

    3) I’m an astronomer myself – albeit an amateur rather than a professional one! ;-)

    no-one here owns those things out there,

    Tell that to the Spanish lady who thinks she owns the Sun! ;-)

    (Not that I recognise her claim in any way shape or form – joking there ‘k.)

  128. mike823

    I dont really care one way or the other if it does come I’ll sit back and roast marshmallows.But in 2006 nasa did recognize it they showed it on some kind of infa red deal I went back later that year and it was gone.they took it out of the image.If it is real they wont tell us till we can see it in the sky ourself.Their afraid we might panic, panic leads to chaos.YOU CAN BELIEVE ONE THING if a planet 8 times the size of earth comes by it WONT DO ANYGOOD.

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