Friday, July 26, 2013

Astronomers Have Been Predicting New Planets in our Solar System for Centuries


The theoretical planet Tyche's theoretical orbit. via

For every planet in our solar system there’s a hypothetical planet, some heavenly body that would explain some observed astronomical occurrence. It’s a compelling idea–that our Solar System is filled with unseen masses–which is probably why stories of new planets keep popping up. This week, the planet Tyche (pronounced ty-kee) has reappeared in social media circles. The supposed planet is theorized to be four times the mass of Jupiter and lurk in the outer Oort Cloud, orbiting 375 times farther from the Sun than Pluto. But so far, theories are all we have on this planet.

Astronomers have been predicting new planets based on mathematical models and observations almost as long as the telescope has been around. It’s how astronomers found Neptune–a body was predicted to orbit outside Uranus to explain its orbit. But some predictions haven’t produced as striking (or concrete) a result as Neptune.

Tyche isn’t a new hypothetical body. In the 1980s, astronomers theorized that the Sun had a companion. The idea was that if our star was part of a binary system with the unseen companion following a highly elliptical orbit, the sister star would periodically perturb comets in the Oort Cloud and send a shower of comets towards the inner solar system. Some of these icy rocks would slam into the Earth eradicating almost all life. This would explain Earth’s periodic mass extinctions. The Oort-lurking star was appropriately named Nemesis.

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