This month’s "Are We Alone" podcast segment Skeptic Check is now online, where astronomer Seth Shostak and I talk about the purported jovian planet that might or might not exist in the cold depths of the solar system out past Neptune. We talk about the science of such a world, and how the media perhaps puffed this piece past a proportionate planetary propriety.
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. Read More