NASA: Pluto has hills of water ice ‘floating’ on a sea of frozen nitrogen

Hills of water ice on Pluto ‘float’ in a sea of frozen nitrogen and move over time like icebergs in Earth’s Arctic Ocean (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Hills of water ice on Pluto ‘float’ in a sea of frozen nitrogen and move over time like icebergs in Earth’s Arctic Ocean (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Nitrogen ice glaciers on Pluto appear to carry numerous hills that may be fragments of water ice, according to NASA, which has analyzed images and data from the New Horizons spacecraft.

The hills, which measure several miles across, are in the vast plain on the dwarf planet’s surface dubbed ‘Sputnik Planum’ by scientists. “They are yet another example of Pluto’s fascinating and abundant geological activity,” explained NASA, in a statement on its website.

NASA notes that, because water ice is less dense than nitrogen-dominated ice, scientists believe the hills are floating in “a sea of frozen nitrogen” and move like icebergs in Earth’s Arctic Ocean.

“The hills are likely fragments of the rugged uplands that have broken away and are being carried by the nitrogen glaciers into Sputnik Planum,” said NASA. “‘Chains’ of the drifting hills are formed along the flow paths of the glaciers.”

NASA recently released stunning pictures that show Pluto’s landscape in incredible detail. The space agency also posted an image of the haze layers in Pluto’s atmosphere taken by the New Horizons spacecraft

Hundreds of hidden galaxies glimpsed behind Milky Way

The Milky Way is seen in the night sky in the White Desert north of the Farafra Oasis near Cairo, Egypt. (Reuters)

The Milky Way is seen in the night sky in the White Desert north of the Farafra Oasis near Cairo, Egypt. (Reuters)

A new telescope view has revealed hundreds of galaxies that were previously obscured by the Milky Way’s bulk.

Scientists used an Australian radio telescope famous for assisting with the moon landings to peer through the gas and dust of the Milky Way, and uncovered 883 galaxies hidden behind it — one-third of which were never observed before. You can see how the hidden galaxies were found in this video.

This new view of the region could help explain something called the Great Attractor, which is a mysterious spot in the universe whose strong gravity pulls on the Milky Way and thousands of other galaxies with “the force equivalent to a million billion suns,” researchers said in a statement. Scientists have known about the phenomenon since the 1970s.

“The Milky Way is very beautiful, of course, and it’s very interesting to study our own galaxy, but it completely blocks out the view of the more distant galaxies behind it,” lead author Lister Staveley-Smith, director of science with the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) said in the statement.

The new observations, made using the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Parkes Observatory, in Australia, found three new galaxy concentrations (NW1, NW2 and NW3) and two new clusters (CW1 and CW2). The researchers put a new, 21-centimeter (8.3 inches) multibeam receiver on the observatory that allowed it to map the sky 13 times faster than it had previously, officials said in the statement. Thus, they were able to pin down a region beyond the Milky Way that astronomers had wondered about for decades.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, 6th man on moon, dies in Florida



Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who became the sixth man on the moon when he and Alan Shepard helped NASA recover from Apollo 13’s “successful failure” and later devoted his life to exploring the mind, physics and unexplained phenomena such as psychics and aliens, has died in Florida. He was 85.

Mitchell died Thursday night at a West Palm Beach hospice after a short illness, his daughter, KimberlyMitchell, said. Mitchell’s passing coincides with the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 14 mission, which ran from Jan. 31-Feb. 9, 1971.

Mitchell, one of only 12 humans to set foot on the moon, was not a typical strait-laced astronaut: In later years, he said aliens visited Earth and faith healers were legit. He attempted to communicate telepathically with friends at home during his Apollo mission. He had an “epiphany” in space that focused him on studying consciousness, physics and other mysteries.

“What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness,” Mitchell wrote in his 1996 autobiography. “It occurred to me that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft itself were manufactured long ago in the furnace of one of the ancient stars that burned in the heavens about me.”

His passion for exploration led him to become an astronaut, and he joined NASA in 1966. He helped design and test the lunar modules that first reached the moon in 1969 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Shepard, the first American in space in 1961, picked Mitchell to be on Apollo 13’s three-person crew. But they were bumped to the next mission so Shepard would have more time to train — he had been grounded for years because of an inner ear disorder.

The delay was an unexpected benefit: Apollo 13’s astronauts were nearly killed when an oxygen tank exploded as they neared the moon in 1970. They made it home safely, but never set foot on the moon. A year later, Shepard, Mitchell and Stu Roosa were the first crew to try again amid falling support for the moon missions from President Nixon, Congress and the public.

“Had we blown it, had it failed for whatever reason, that would probably have been the end of the Apollo program right there,” Mitchell said in 1997. But they didn’t let that get to them: “When you’re carrying that personal load, you just don’t have room to carry a national load as well.”

Fortunately, their mission, the third lunar landing and Mitchell’s only trip in space, was a success.

Unlike the two moon missions before them that went to smoother areas, Shepard and Mitchell landed in a hilly region while Roosa orbited overhead.

They collected about 95 pounds of samples in more than nine hours walking the lunar surface. They showed for the first time that astronauts could walk long distances on the moon, covering nearly two miles on their second expedition on the surface. That proved the crews of later missions could walk back to their spacecraft if the buggy-like Lunar Rover broke down.

Their mission was best known to the public because Shepard became the first and only golfer on the moon.Mitchell joked when Shepard duffed his first shot: “You got more dirt than ball that time.” Less well known was that Mitchell made the only “javelin” throw on the moon when he tossed an unneeded metal rod.

Apollo 14 did have its share of glitches. Shepard and Mitchell almost didn’t make it to the surface because of problems in the lunar module.

First, a loose piece of metal in a switch made an abort signal go off as they prepared to travel down to the moon. If the descent engine had been on at the time, the module would have automatically aborted the landing. They traced the problem’s cause by tapping on the switch with a flashlight and a pen.

Computer programmers back home wrote instructions to get around the abort problem and Mitchell entered them with just minutes to spare. Shepard later wrote that Mitchell remained “Mr. Unflappable” during the scare.

Once they started for the surface, though, the landing radar wasn’t working correctly. Shepard and Mitchellagreed to take the dangerous and rule-breaking step of landing without radar, but didn’t have to when the device started working just in time.

They had to give up searching on foot for Cone Crater’s rim, one of their mission’s top geological sites. They stopped because they spent too much time looking for it and had to stick to tight schedules. When Mission Control told them they should consider giving up, he used colorful language for an astronaut: “Think you’re finks!”

But it was the telepathy experiment on the ride home that would give Mitchell more notoriety. Even before he left, he told The Associated Press about his fascination with psychic phenomena and extrasensory perception and that he thought humans weren’t the only intelligent life in the universe.

Those interests almost got him removed from the mission, said Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon and backup commander for Apollo 14. Cernan wrote in his autobiography that despite Mitchell’simpeccable skills and vast intelligence, flight crew director Deke Slayton and Shepard were bothered with the fascination.

“Ed just wouldn’t let it go, and Deke said he was uncomfortable with the possibility that Mitchell’s full attention would not be on the mission,” Cernan wrote.

Mitchell claimed the experiment was a success. He thought of certain symbols on a list and the friends on Earth tried to determine which ones. They were supposed to attempt the experiment at certain times, but a launch delay caused them to try at different times.

He said the results were wrong about 90 percent of the time, much more than the half that chance would suggest. He and his friends said that meant that subconsciously they knew something was wrong because of the delay, so they communicated incorrect symbols.

But most press reports dismissed him and some colleagues shunned him.

Edgar Dean Mitchell was born Sept. 17, 1930, in Hereford, Texas, and grew up working on his father’s cattle ranch in New Mexico. He joined the Navy and got a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining NASA.

He left NASA in 1972 and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which is dedicated to exploring the mysteries of the human mind and the universe. He also searched for ways to link the spirituality of religion with the hard facts of science.

In later years, he claimed the U.S. government covered up evidence that aliens had landed here. He also tried to prove that the supposed psychic spoon bender Uri Geller and faith healers were legit.

In 2011, he became embroiled in a legal fight with NASA over his plans to auction a 16mm camera he had brought home from the moon mission. The camera had been bolted to the l lunar module and would have been left on the moon if Mitchell hadn’t removed it.

Although Mitchell contended it was a gift, NASA sued to stop the auction and eventually Mitchell agreed to donate it to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

China releases incredible images of the moon’s surface

China's  Yutu moon rover (Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration /The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla)

China’s Yutu moon rover (Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration /The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla)

China’s National Space Administration has released a slew of stunning moon images taken by its Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover.

The Planetary Society has posted a number of the color HD images on its website. The pictures show, for example, the Yutu rover driving across the moon’s surface and the Chang’e 3 lander in an incredible moonscape.

The unmanned Chang’e 3 lunar mission reached the moon in December 2013. Last year the Yutu rover found evidence of a new type of balsatic rock on the moon’s surface.

China also expects to land a probe on the so-called “dark side of the moon” two years earlier than planned, the country’s state media recently reported. The Chang’e 4 lander will reach the moon in 2018 instead of theearlier mark of 2020, according to media reports.

SpaceX botches rocket landing on California barge

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen at Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in California.  (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen at Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in California. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

The first stage of a SpaceX rocket that delivered an ocean-monitoring satellite into orbit made a hard landing on an ocean barge and broke a support leg.

SpaceX announcers said the Falcon 9 was not upright after reaching the 300-by-170 foot landing pad west of San Diego on Sunday morning. No further details were immediately available.

The rocket launched as planned at 10:42 a.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Los Angeles, sending its second stage and a Jason-3 satellite into orbit.

The failed landing is a blow to the California-based company’s plan to reduce launch costs by reusing rockets rather than having them fall into the ocean.

The mission of Jason-3 is to continue an unbroken record of more than two decades of sea level measurements from orbit.

originally available here

Scientists stunned by brightest-ever supernova

An artist's impression of the record-breakingly powerful, superluminous supernova ASASSN- 15lh as it would appear from an exoplanet located about 10,000 light years away in the host galaxy of the supernova. (Beijing Planetarium / Jin Ma))

An artist’s impression of the record-breakingly powerful, superluminous supernova ASASSN- 15lh as it would appear from an exoplanet located about 10,000 light years away in the host galaxy of the supernova. (Beijing Planetarium / Jin Ma))

Scientists may have spotted the most powerful supernova ever seen, some 3.8 billion light years away in deep space.

Named ASASSN-15lh, it looks like a huge ball of hot gas and is radiating the energy of hundreds of billions of Suns. Ten miles across at its center, this object is putting on quite a show, creating a cosmic explosion about 200 times more powerful than a typical supernova and more than twice as luminous as the previous record-holding supernova.

Related: NASA releases stunning image of a supernova’s remnants

If that is enough to astound you, its explosion at its peak intensity was 570 billion times the brightness of the Sun. At that rate, its luminosity level is approximately 20 times the entire output of the 100 billion stars comprising our Milky Way galaxy.

“ASASSN-15lh is the most powerful supernova discovered in human history,” Subo Dong, an astronomer and a Youth Qianren Research Professor at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University and the lead author on a study on the supernova in the journal Science, said in a statement. “The explosion’s mechanism and power source remain shrouded in mystery because all known theories meet serious challenges in explaining the immense amount of energy ASASSN-15lh has radiated.”

ASASSN-15lh was first glimpsed in June 2015 by twin, telescopes in Cerro Tololo, Chile conducting the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae(ASAS-SN), an international collaboration headquartered at Ohio State University.

Related: Supernova discovery reveals how the biggest, brightest stars die

“Every time in science we open up a new discovery space, exciting findings should follow,” said Krzysztof Stanek, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University and the co-Principal Investigator of ASAS-SN. “The trick is not to miss them.”

In the four months after it first exploded, so much energy beamed out of ASASSN-15lh that it would take our Sun in its current state more than 90 billion years to equal its emissions. By examining this bright and the slowly fading afterglow, astronomers learned much about ASASSN-15lh including the fact that the chemical elements scattered after the explosion were different than any of the other 200 supernovae observed.

ASASSN-15lh also has certain features consistent with “hydrogen-poor” (Type I) superluminous supernovae, which are one of the two main types of these epic explosions so named for lacking signatures of the chemical element hydrogen in their spectra, researchers said. ASASSN-15lh has also shown a rate of temperature decrease and radius expansion similar to some previously discovered Type I superluminous supernova.

J. Craig Wheeler, the Samuel T. and Fern Yanagisawa Regents Professor in Astronomy and Distinguished Teaching Professor, called the discovery “a very interesting event.”

“Many of these very luminous events result from a massive star that belches out a shell of matter and then explodes into it,” Wheeler told in an email interview. “That picture works best when there is a blanket of hydrogen. This event falls in the class that have no hydrogen. Shell collision might still play a role, but another active possibility is that a powerful new-born neutron star pumps out the excess radiation. This event challenges even that model, so there will be a lot of head scratching.”

Related: Supernova seen through cosmic ‘cigar smoke’ by NASA telescope

One of the best theories explaining the massive amounts of energy coming from this supernova is that it could have spawned an extremely rare type of star called a millisecond magnetar, a rapidly spinning and very dense star with a very strong magnetic field.

“Very few events in nature are capable of providing the enormous brightness of this event and all are exotic,” Stanford Woosley, an expert in supernovas at the University of California Santa Cruz but who did not take part in the study, said.

“If it is a supernova, we may be witnessing the birth of a “millisecond magnetar”,a neutron star with a mass 1 1/2 times that of the sun rotating 1,000 times a second,” he said. “Even here the maximum rotational energy before the neutron star would either fly apart or collapse to a back hole, is just a few times what was seen in light.and the efficiency for turning rotational energy into light would need to be quite high.”

To help confirm the source of its energy as well as determine the exact location of ASASSN-15lh, the team plans to turn to the Hubble Space Telescope. With Hubble, Dong and colleagues will obtain the most detailed views yet of the aftermath of ASASSN-15lh’s stunning explosion.

originally available here

NASA brings Ceres to life with colorful animation

Simulated view of Dwarf planet Ceres using images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Simulated view of Dwarf planet Ceres using images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

It was only a matter of time before someone made a short video with Ceres as the star.

The dwarf planet, which has been the focus of the NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of late, lies between Mars and Jupiter. With an average diameter of 590 miles, there has been plenty for Dawn to study since arriving in March 2013.

NASA has taken full of advantage of the fact this is the first mission to achieve orbit around a dwarf planet – releasing scores of images of Ceres and now a nearly four minute animation that gets  up close and personal.

The movie, using images from Dawn’s high-altitude mapping orbit from August to October 2015, takes you on a virtual tour of Ceres. It showcases scores of mind-blowing craters including the Haulani Crater (21 miles) Yalode Crater (162 miles) Dantu Crater (78 miles) as well as the tall, conical mountain Ahuna Mons.

Features on Ceres are named for earthly agricultural spirits, deities and festivals.

The colors also serve to highlight subtle differences in the planet’s appearance. The blues, for example, are believed to contain younger, fresher material, including flows, pits and cracks.

“The simulated overflight shows the wide range of crater shapes that we have encountered on Ceres. The viewer can observe the sheer walls of the crater Occator, and also Dantu and Yalode, where the craters are a lot flatter,” Ralf Jaumann, a Dawn mission scientist at the German Aerospace Center

Space Shuttle Challenger’s fallen flags and patches, 30 years later

  • Challenger Flags and Patches

    Challenger Flags and Patches (Smithsonian)

The flags and patches were found the next day, floating in the Atlantic Ocean, among the debris from the fallen space shuttle Challenger.

The nylon banners and embroidered emblems, packaged in watertight pouches, were intended for NASA employees and other supporters of the 51-L mission, to be distributed after Challenger and its seven-member crew returned from orbiting the Earth for six days. Instead, 73 seconds into the flight, a problem with a solid rocket booster resulted in the Challenger breaking apart.

Originally put on the orbiter as mementos of NASA’s 25th space shuttle mission, the flags and patches now took on a different role — as memorials for the astronauts lost in the U.S. space program’s first tragedy during flight. [Remembering Challenger: Photo Gallery]

“This flag and patch were flown as part of the Official Flight Kit aboard orbiter Challenger, STS-51L January 28, 1986,” read the walnut and aluminum plaques on which the flags and patches were mounted for presentation. Along the top of the plexiglas-covered displays were inscribed the words “In Commemoration” above portraits of the astronauts who died: Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and S. Christa McAuliffe.

Eight months to the day after the loss, NASA announced it would distribute a flown STS-51L patch, an American flag and a state or territory banner to each of the 50 U.S. states and territories. The space agency did not direct where the plaques had to go, but made a request that the mementos be ”displayed appropriately in memorial to the crew.”

Now, 30 years later, where are those plaques today?

Presenting the plaques

NASA had the STS-51L flag and patch displays produced in time for the first anniversary of the accident in January 1987. Plaques were then distributed to the states over that next year.

For example, astronaut Manley “Sonny” Carter presented the Challenger mementos to his home state of Georgia on Dec. 11, 1986. Governor Frank Harris accepted the plaque and said that it would be put on permanent display in the Capitol building in Atlanta, according to local news reports from that day.

Two months later on Feb. 19, 1987, NASA astronaut Ken Cameron traveled to Hartford, Connecticut to present Gov. William O’Neill with the state’s STS-51L flags and patch.

“This plaque … helps represent the spirit of exploration — the spirit the crew lived by, believed in and gave their lives for ultimately,” said Cameron, who as a boy spent a part of his youth in Connecticut, reported the Associated Press.

The next month on March 23, astronaut Richard Richards was in Salt Lake City to present a plaque to the governor of Utah.

“These flags will serve as a reminder of the made by the seven astronauts,” Utah’s Governor Norman Bangerter said, noting the plaque would be held intremendous sacrifice his office until it could go on display in the Capitol building.

A similar presentation was held in Idaho on May 1, 1987.

“It will be put in an appropriate place where it will be seen by the people who come to the Statehouse to visit,” stated Gov. Cecil Andrus after astronaut Jim Adamson presented the plaque during a ceremony held in Boise.

Three decades later

Despite statements about permanent displays at the time, it is not clear where many of the Challenger flag and patch plaques are today.

Renovations to the buildings and just the passage of time may have contributed to some of the 51L memorials being relocated, statehouse representatives said. The curator for Utah’s Capitol, for example, said that the plaque may have been exhibited in the building in the past, but after a 2004 restoration was no longer there.

A recent search for the Challenger plaques located only a few on public display, including:

  • New York: In Garden City, at the Cradle of Aviation Museum
  • Ohio: At the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta
  • New Mexico: At the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo (currently in storage as the area where it previously hung is being renovated)

NASA prepared similar plaques for organizations that flew items on board Challenger. For example, a small “Learning and Liberty” flag that was to have been flown in space for the National School Public Relations Association is now at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas.

Similarly a plaque displaying flown STS-51L and Air Force Satellite Control Facility patches was at one time displayed at the Onizuka Air Force Station in California until it closed in 2010. (The base, which was earlier known as Sunnyvale Air Force Station, was renamed in 1986 for the Challenger astronaut, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force.)

Perhaps the best known example of the memorial plaques is at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. On exhibit in the “Moving Beyond Earth” gallery, which is devoted to the history of the space shuttle, it was joined by a similar flown patch plaque after the loss of space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003.

Exoplanet hunters made key finds in 2015

File photo.  (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

File photo. (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

When it comes to science, exoplanets are easy to love. They play roles in most science fiction books and movies and spark the imagination of nearly everyone. Beyond the realm of fiction, understanding these worlds remains a significant challenge that astronomers are working hard to overcome.

As 2015 winds down, we caught up with noted exoplanet scientist Sara Seager, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the American Astronomical Society’s Extreme Solar Systems III conference in Hawaii to ask her perspective on the field over the past year. She pointed to the progress made in understanding rocky worlds and the significant strides made in capturing images of planets. The biggest steps, however, came in the slow progress made in better understanding how planets — both inside and outside of the solar system — are built, she said.

“We really want to know how planetary systems form. It’s very complicated, because there are so many different pathways,” Seager said. [Related: The Biggest Astronomy Discoveries of 2015]

A series of small steps

Seager said one of the biggest recent advances is the increased ability of scientists to measure the masses of small planets. While many Jupiter-size worlds have masses that can be measured due to the technique used to spot them, most of the planets found by NASA’s Kepler mission have only a known radius. Follow-up studies with other instruments have allowed astronomers to obtain the masses of these worlds in some cases, providing the density. Knowing whether an exoplanet has a density closer to rock or gas can help scientists get an idea of that world’s possible compositions.

“It looks like anything bigger than 1.6 Earth radii is not rocky,” Seager said. (One Earth radius is about 3,863 miles, or 6,378 kilometers.)

Seager also pointed out that the methods used to find and study exoplanetscontinue to improve.

“Each planet-finding technique took one to two decades to come to maturity,” she said.

Of these, the process of directly imaging a planet has made the greatest strides recently. One of the biggest challenges with the technique is in spotting the glow of a planet amid the far brighter light of a star. The farther away a planet lies from its sun, the easier that world is to identify. This makes the technique complementary to searches performed by NASA’s Kepler mission, which more easily studies worlds orbiting close to their stars.

“You could say they’ve been doing direct imaging forever, because people imaged binary stars, but now they’re able to see a fainter and fainter companion closer and closer to a hot star,” Seager said.

“They’re still really far from seeing Earths, but they’re definitely making strides.”

She estimated that direct imaging should be able to identify an Earth-like world within the next decade.

Hot Jupiter findings heat up

Another major highlight of the year is an improved understanding of the massive, short-orbiting planets known as hot Jupiters. These massive worlds orbit their suns in days or even hours, despite being far larger than Jupiter. The huge planets made up the bulk of the first exoplanet discoveries, yet scientists are still struggling to understand how these worlds formed and why they orbit so close to their suns.

“In exoplanets, there are a million little puzzles,” Seager said. “Hot Jupiters appeared not to have any companions initially, but it’s because we couldn’t really search the set of orbits where planets could live” that we didn’t see any companions.

Recent results have shown that hot Jupiters aren’t all loners after all. Several of these hot, massive planets turned out to have companions, which Seager said she finds exciting. Some of those are massive rocky bodies far larger than Earth, known as super-Earths.

“One of the original predictions said all hot Jupiters would have an interior super-Earth,” she said.

Although a handful of scientists think that hot Jupiters may have originally formed near their parent stars, most researchers think that the gas giants formed farther away, in the same region gas giants of Earth’s solar system lie. The planets then migrated inward. As they did so, Seager said, they shepherded any inner planets along with them, scientists think. The recent discoveries that some of these gas giants have companions suggests that, at least in some cases, that hypothesis may hold true.

“Nature probably can move planets around every possible way we can think of and more, so maybe that theory is right,” Seager said.

Strange new worlds ahead

Although she couldn’t name any single major events for the year that were surprising, she pointed out that understanding how planetary systems tick takes time. The biggest strides in the field this year seem to be the slow gathering of information to allow scientists to begin to put it all together.

“I think one of the big things happening is just the emergence of all of these different clues in different ways,” Seager said.

It takes the right person to put it all together, but Seager said that probably will take another decade or so.

That doesn’t mean scientists are ready to say they conclusively know how worlds form, a question that has plagued researchers for decades, she said.

“There’s no final story now. We can’t say, ‘Oh, now we understand all planet formation.’ That will be decades if not a century or more.”

Scientists may have just found a ninth planet and it’s massive

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) )

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. (Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) )

Scientists believe they may have found a giant planet in our distant solar system, possibly the long-sought after Planet X.

It is believed to have a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbits about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than does Neptune. As a result, it would take this new planet between 10,000 and 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around the Sun.

“This would be a real ninth planet,” CalTech researcher Mike Brown, who along with his colleague Konstantin Batygin, made the discovery which they are calling Planet Nine. “There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that’s still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting.”

Already gearing up for questions over whether it’s a true planet, Brown points out that it is 5,000 times the mass of Pluto and gravitationally dominates its neighborhood of the solar system – more so than any other known planet.

It’s “the most planet-y of the planets in the whole solar system,” said Brown, who is famous for helping demote Pluto to a dwarf planet.
Describing their work in the current issue of the Astronomical Journal, the researchers said in a statement that Planet Nine helps explain a number of mysterious features of the field of icy objects and debris beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.

“Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there,” Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science, said. “For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system’s planetary census is incomplete.”

Brown and his colleagues first got onto the trail of Planet Nine in 2014, when a former postdoc of Brown’s, Chad Trujillo, and his colleague Scott Shepherd published a paper noting that 13 of the most distant objects in the Kuiper Belt are similar with respect to an obscure orbital feature. They suggested the similarities hinted at the presence of a small planet.

The researchers first considered that there are enough distant Kuiper Belt objects – some of which have not yet been discovered – to exert the gravity needed to keep that subpopulation clustered together. But they quickly ruled this out when it turned out that such a scenario would require the Kuiper Belt to have about 100 times the mass it has today.

That left them with the idea of a planet.

Running a simulation in which the planet’s closest approach to the Sun, or perihelion, is 180 degrees across from the perihelion of all the other objects and known planets – the distant Kuiper Belt objects in the simulation assumed the alignment that they were observing.

The presence of Planet 9 helps explains some oddities of the Kuiper Belt, including its alignment and the mysterious orbits that some of the objects trace.

The first of those objects, dubbed Sedna, was discovered by Brown in 2003. Unlike standard-variety Kuiper Belt objects, which get gravitationally “kicked out” by Neptune and then return back to it, Sedna never gets very close to Neptune.

The researchers also found that their simulations predicted that there would be objects in the Kuiper Belt on orbits inclined perpendicularly to the plane of the planets. In the last three years, observers have identified four objects tracing orbits roughly along one perpendicular line from Neptune and one object along another.

“We plotted up the positions of those objects and their orbits, and they matched the simulations exactly,” Brown said. “When we found that, my jaw sort of hit the floor.”

“When the simulation aligned the distant Kuiper Belt objects and created objects like Sedna, we thought this is kind of awesome — you kill two birds with one stone,” Batygin added. “But with the existence of the planet also explaining these perpendicular orbits, not only do you kill two birds, you also take down a bird that you didn’t realize was sitting in a nearby tree.”
Brown surmised that Planet Nine could show that there were five, not four, planetary cores that marked the beginning of the universe. It is believed that these four cores gobbled up all the gas around them, forming the four gaseous planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. If Planet Nine represents this fifth core, Brown said, it could have been ejected into its distant, eccentric orbit as it got close to Jupiter or Saturn.