A New Planet in the Solar System? Not So Fast

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 10, 2015 4:31 pm

Researchers believe they may have spotted a super-Earth, like Kepler-62f (illustrated here), on the fringes of our solar system. (Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/Tim Pyle)

Astronomers working with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered what they claim could be another large planet on the fringes of our solar system.

While examining the Alpha Centauri star system, the nearest to Earth, they noticed a fast-moving object crossing their field of view.

Its speed and brightness allowed them to rule out another star as the culprit, and based on wavelength readings obtained from ALMA, they believe it could be a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) orbiting the sun somewhere between 10 billion and 2 trillion miles from our home star. For comparison, Pluto is less than 4 billion miles away from the sun.

Although the finding is intriguing, the news has been met with a healthy dose of skepticism.

A New Member of the Solar System?

Stars typically emit too much light for astronomers to discern any objects in their immediate vicinity, but the ALMA observatory was built to capture low-frequency wavelengths, allowing researchers to see objects that are closer to stars. This is how researchers noticed a mysterious object moving relative to Alpha Centauri, exhibiting what scientists call “proper motion.” The researchers suggest the object could be one of several celestial bodies, including a brown dwarf, a super-Earth (a planet larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune), or a much smaller, icy body orbiting beyond Pluto.


A picture of Alpha Centauri captured by WISE. (Credit: NASA/WISE/Amy Mainzer)

Researchers posted their findings online Thursday to arXiv, but they are still awaiting peer review.

Hold Your Horses

While the possibility of adding another large planet to our solar neighborhood is exciting, the likelihood that this object, if it exists, is a so-called “super- Earth,” is probably quite small. The ALMA observatory can only look at a tiny fraction of the sky at any given moment. For their study, the researchers could only observe, at maximum, one arcminute, or 1/21,600th, of the heavens. To put that in perspective, the moon is 30 arcminutes across when full and viewed from Earth. Therefore, the odds that researchers happened to catch a large planet in their narrow gaze are pretty small. As Caltech astronomer Mike Brown pointed out via Twitter:

The far more likely possibility is that the astronomers captured one of the many icy objects floating beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt and the far-flung Oort Cloud. There are millions of such objects, ranging in size from less than a mile in diameter to almost 1,500 miles.

And, as Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait pointed out, the WISE observatory performed a comprehensive scan of the sky last year, and found no large planets beyond Pluto. WISE senses infrared radiation, which makes warm objects appear bright, so the absence of any WISE data means that the most probable identity of this newfound object in our solar system is a small, cold body orbiting far beyond Pluto. While this doesn’t entirely discount the presence of a super-Earth, it makes the probability very small —too small, perhaps, for us to warrant getting our hopes up too high.

For now, we’ll just have to hold our breath and wait for these results to get vetted.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • John Fox

    Contemporary science always rails against anything that challenges their established view of the world and thinks science is static but in reality it is dynamic.

    • Michael O’Hara

      You gotta wonder, is it that the knowledge base is dynamic or the actual information of the universe dynamic?

    • OrumusST

      actually scientists “rail” against any new theories because that is what science is all about. It is not about what we want or wish to be true but what is provable through careful and repeatable observation and experimentation. At the moment the vast majority of evidence we have suggests this is not a new super earth or at very least very unlikely. That does not mean it isn’t true and you can bet your life savings that a whole bunch of very smart people are trying to figure this out one way or another.

      • Wade

        “It is not about what we want or wish to be true but what is provable through careful and repeatable observation and experimentation. ” Omg, are you kidding me?? I think perhaps you had best go pick up history book or two…. hahahahahaha

        • OrumusST

          Obviously history is not my problem but yours. You seem to be confusing your limited understanding of what science is with what it actually is. History of the sciences is replete with examples of the scientific community revising their theories and even laws as evidence that is repeatable outweighs whatever evidence they had for their former theories.

          • Tony G. Emmi, Jr.

            You are correct in your statement that science is about observable and repeatable empherical data. But, science, like the minds of men, can be biased. In Bill Bryson’s book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” there are numerous examples of not only adherence to outdated theory, like geological dating of the earth, or classification of plants,etc that demonstrate not only does science fight against paradigm changes but is also petty minded people who have black listed some of those innovators if thought. I’m sorry my examples are more precise but it has been a year or two since I read the book. But, in Thomas Kuhn’s book, “The Structure of Scienfic Theory” he states how difficult it is to bring paradigm shifting ideas into science. It can be done, but my point is your scientific development isn’t as pure as you are stating. There are biases and underdeveloped theories that fight change and growth. Now, that being said, Science is a good thing, but it is the way it is a bit recalcitrant to change is an area to acknowledge.

          • LA Coleman

            I agree, mostly. But what never get mentioned are two important – even overriding – issues that are not in your discussion. First, one certainly does not want science to chase every fad or hint of a new idea without pushback. To do so would dilute the finite resources of scientists. The trick is to achieve a balance between willingness and reluctance to change. Arguably, science as practiced today has achieve an optimum balance that maximizes forward progress. A too-ready acceptance of new ideas would be like a hound dog that follows every side-trail scent and makes scant progress on running down the real prey. In this case we don’t want every telescope turned toward finding the barely-likely large planet by abandoning the current work on more productive research. The examples described by Bryson and Kuhn are part of this necessary balancing act. Yes, Science is biased – usually a bad thing – but in this case it is desirable. Second, yes some scientists are petty, most are biased, but SCIENCE the activity comprises many scientists with different biases and the result is that it hardly matters. History shows that eventually the biases are washed away. For some (usually not scientists), “eventually” is too long. For others (most scientists), there is great danger in changing the way science works, danger that it will work less well.

          • OrumusST

            Thanks for making my point. I never said Scientists are pure. Science though is as good a strategy for furthering our understanding as human kind has ever created. Yes their are biased scientists who lose perspective and are blinded by ego or other human afflictions but even so because of the structure of checks and balances and the fact most scientists are seeking to further their understanding of reality science itself prevails. Take leaded gas for example. For many years the paid off scientists “railed” against the scientists who said it was so bad for people and causing illness and so on, but eventually the evidence was seen by so many and verified by the rest of the community that it was accepted.
            Things like accepting a new planet in the solar system does not have huge companies with tons of money to lose paying off scientists to make false statements. This is actually one huge strength of our connected world. People around the world can disseminate information much quicker then ever before. So what evidence there is is being seen and gone over by the best minds in the field as soon as it is released. Remaining skeptical until verifiable and repeatable evidence is presented is key to progressing our best understanding of the truth.

    • BJK

      This science teacher was covering the Nature of Science this week, and I explained to my students that scientists WELCOME evidence that they are wrong about something. BUT, like Wegener and his Continental Drift theory of 1912-ish, without substantial evidence to support a new claim, it will not be accepted. Sometimes, as with Wegener, evidence is found later that supports it. Most often, though, that doesn’t happen. Until there is enough evidence to “convict” a proposal as being “likely to be true”, new ideas are rejected. It’s nothing personal against the person (usually, though in Wegener’s case that could have been part of it), it’s just one of the ways that science has built-in checks and balances to keep pseudo-science and supernatural concepts out of the realm of natural science.

      • Tony G. Emmi, Jr.

        Supernatural is only something that is not yet understood by science.

  • http://bellerophon-modeler.blogspot.com/ Bellerophon, modeler

    The article greatly overstates how much of the sky is seen in this survey. The piece of the sky being observed is 1/21600th as wide as a 360 degree panoramic view, but that makes this little peephole less than a billionth of the whole sky.

    • http://www.cogonline.net/ Digital Jedi

      Did you skip the second subheading?

  • ahnuld777

    I guess everything is not known

    • http://www.AlternativeMIDI.com Pat Smolinski

      It WILL be known, when “HE” who created it to tempt our minds with “unknowns” like this, and right before we “Get It”, appears in majesty! #LastDay

      • TPaine

        Always a religious fool injecting their worthless comment. Go back to your study of dead languages and book of make-believe.

        • Prentice

          Your the fool here. There is no doubt your soul will burn in hell.

      • Donald Firesmith

        Pretty evil deity to provide all of this misleading evidence just to tempt us so that we can be tortured by being burned alive for eternity. How sick! Science strikes me as a much more probably (not to mention plausible) explanation than that provided by one of the innumerable incompatible ancient religious texts written by people with no scientific knowledge.

        • Prentice

          For your sake I hope your right. As for me and my family we’ll serve the lord.

      • Prentice


      • bwana

        Trolling for God again??

  • Conrad Young

    The moon is thirty arc minutes across because it is so close. To put the concept into perspective, Neptune, which is over 14 times the diameter of the moon, is around .0038 arc minutes across, or .23″. (Where ” is the notation for arc seconds, an arc second is 1/60 arc minutes [the typical notation for arc minutes is ‘])
    This is due to the fact that the distance across an object in degrees, arc minutes, or arc seconds is based upon its distance from the observer, because those units are just a way to describe the percentage of a circle.

    For another example, if the sun were placed 10 billion miles away from the earth, it would be only 1.78″ across, fitting easily into the 1′ window.

    An object 10 times the size of earth placed at that distance would be .0027’.

    The perimeter of a circle is P=2*pi*r. A circle is 360 degrees, one degree is 60′ (arc minutes), and one arc minute is 60″ (arc seconds). So the width of an object in arc seconds at a distance d from the observer is W=(2*pi*r)/(360°*360″)
    The numbers I used for diameters and distance were gathered from wikipedia. I used the diameter of Neptune as (approximately-which means I rounded) 5*10^7 m (where m means meters), its average distance from earth as 4.5*10^12 m, the diameter of the sun as 8.65×10^5 miles, and that of earth’s as 7917 miles (I only used miles because the distance was given in miles).

    As for why the astronomer found it incredulous, that was due to the extremely low probability of finding it, not because it would have a hard time fitting into the field of view as I felt this article implied. But, it is important to note, improbabilities are not impossibilities. Only time will tell if its out there. If there were 200,000 Earth sized planets out there, we would die, which means there aren’t that many out there. If there were just one, it would have absolutely, approximately, no impact on Earth’s orbit.

    Additionally there has always been speculation that there was a large planetary body on the outskirts of the solar system.

    It is important to note that I have not read the scientific paper and this article has been my sole source of information on the body.

  • Graig

    The article, and Twitter copy, makes it sound like randomly finding something is a 1 in 200,000 shot, but aren’t we randomly searching the skies all the time for things? I assume there are thousands of searches which yield nothing and about which we never hear anything, so when we hear something why should the longshot odds be a reason to say that it’s not real. It will need peer review, but I don’t think the fact that it’s a longshot based on the small area of sky at which they were looking means anything and as such this article is somewhat pointless.

  • Charles Barnard

    Doesn’t sound to me like “researchers believe” anything other than that they found something which moves rapidly between here and Alpha Centari…likely closer to here. Could be a sunless planet passing through (we’ve seen several,) could be…could be…everything after “we saw something” us speculation, not data.

    • Prentice

      Yeah! Could it be a UUUUUFFFFFFOOOOOOOOOH? As good a theory as any.

      • Charles Barnard

        Fits. Though “flying” is debatable…is it flying if it’s in space? Is it flying if it’s not under power? Is it in orbit about the Sun…or just passing through?

        “Unidentified Object” is what it is…or it might not be an “object”…

        • Prentice

          Good point. So the only thing we know with 100% certainty is it’s unidentified. Who needs theories?

        • Jason Featheringham

          Flying: moving or able to move through the air with wings. We can confidently say it is not in our airspace, so I would agree.

      • Jason Featheringham

        Except that we have confirmed planets exist. A theory is more “good” when you have peer-accepted precedent.

        • Prentice

          We’ve known planets exist for thousands of years by looking into a telescope and seeing it with our eyes and brain. Does peer-accepted precedent mean an agenda?

          • Jason Featheringham

            Apophenia much?

          • Prentice

            Skitzo does not run in my family. We are level headed.

          • Jason Featheringham

            I reasonably go far more by the ideas that are said, not the vouching of/by one’s family.

          • Prentice

            And you said “a theory is more good when you have peer-accepted precedent”. That’s not a reasonable idea. Your peers could also be wrong. Merry Christmas!

          • Jason Featheringham

            I’m not sure you and I would agree on the definitition or intent of a theory or peer review. Certainty is not the goal; it is understood that certainty is unobtainable. The point of a theory is not to explain whether something is right or wrong, but how it is currently understood as to why something is as it is observed. Peer review assists to confirm this possible explanation, but again not to claim certainty or to be used as an argument from popularity.

  • Lorie Franceschi

    Scientists are blowing this off, because it does not fit their view of our solar system before it has has a chance to have any peer review done. And these people teach at our universities.

    • BJK

      This science teacher was covering the Nature of Science this week, and I explained to my students that scientists WELCOME evidence that they are wrong about something. BUT, like Wegener and his Continental Drift theory of 1912-ish, without substantial evidence to support a new claim, it will not be accepted. Sometimes, as with Wegener, evidence is found later that supports it. Most often, though, that doesn’t happen. Until there is enough evidence to “convict” a proposal as being “likely to be true”, new ideas are rejected. It’s nothing personal against the person (usually, though in Wegener’s case that could have been part of it), it’s just one of the ways that science has built-in checks and balances to keep pseudo-science and supernatural concepts out of the realm of natural science. (I made the same reply above to someone else.)

      • Lorie Franceschi

        Which means with out a peer review they are rejecting it out right. I am skeptical about it being a super earth, but I don’t out right reject it as not being a planet. More proof has to be found and the first results have to be either repeated or disproved before I and any scientist worth their salt should out right rejection the analysis/

        • BJK

          It is always rejected until it’s at LEAST been through peer review. That’s one of the Very FIRST methods of checking for inaccuracies. Once peer reviewed, then more investigation will help add to what is known.

          • http://www.AlternativeMIDI.com Pat Smolinski

            “innocent, until proven guilty?” LOL!!

        • Jason Featheringham

          Yes, any claim should be rejected until proven worthy of a peer review (with plenty of initial evidence). If we peer-reviewed every claim that came along, we would rarely have any time to work on substantially demonstrable claims.

          • Lorie Franceschi

            It should be hey, we should look into this they may be right and they may be wrong but we should check out their information, without rejecting it out right. but hey what do i know im am just an 8th grade science teacher.

  • Bob Juniper

    10 billion and 2 trillion , That’s a bit of difference. Thats as close as they can guessimate?

    • Josh Calcino

      Yeah because it depends on the size of the body, the larger it is the further away it must be. You can get an upper limit to the distance because after a body is a certain size you expect it to be warm enough to be detected in the infrared, however this object is not visible in infrared. Not 100% sure how they get the lower limit though, probably a similar argument since if the body were closer than 10 bn km then it might be getting enough warmth from the Sun to be visible in infrared, but I am only guessing on that one.

  • lavalleejohn@yahoo.com

    If this is true and the human race survives long enough, this could be a new home when our star goes red giant, Fingers crossed.

  • Elliander Eldridge

    If a brown dwarf is a possibility wouldn’t that be even more exciting than another planet? I mean, that would suggest that our solar system is a binary star system. The question though is if a star could be that cold.

  • http://www.AlternativeMIDI.com Pat Smolinski

    There will be “Trials and Tribulations”…Nation will rise against nation, Kingdom against Kingdom. There will be wars, and “rumors of wars”. There will be pestilence upon the land, and earthquakes and volcanoes in various places….Yeah, this happens all the time, and has for millennia….just wait ’till the “real stuff” comes! Woe on you who “disbelieve” what is documented in the bible, and “backed up by science”!

  • http://www.AlternativeMIDI.com Pat Smolinski

    The Last Day will be a day of “separation”, “Salvation”, and “CONDEMNATION”!. John the Baptist paints the picture of a harvester sticking his long winnowing fork into a pile of wheat. The farmer lifts the wheat into the air and lets the wind do the work. The “chaff blows away”! Later, it will be gathered and burned, in a “unquenchable fire”, because that’s all that “chaff” is good for. But the good stuff (us, who “believe”), the wheat, will be gathered into “the barn”….(Heaven!)

  • http://www.AlternativeMIDI.com Pat Smolinski

    By the way, God did NOT create the universe in 6 of “OUR days”. It had nothing to do with the rotation of OUR planet! He created it in 6 of HIS days! Since God is not “bound” by “time” like we are, He only used the “day” thing in his holy word so we could “relate”. Yes, it’s been billions of years “OUR TIME”, not “HIS time”! God is “Timeless”! Heck, God created “time” as a part of the universe…..

    • Jason Featheringham

      No idea is bound by time.

  • Paul Andrews

    The odds against anyone discovering something important by just pointing their telescope at a random spot in to sky are pretty long, but that is exactly how Pluto was discovered.


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