Today, while NASA was busy justifying its existence now that it no longer does space travel, other scientists were happily doing its job – presenting evidence for a ninth planet in the solar system, believed to be slightly smaller than Neptune, with a suspected orbit of 15 000 years, roaming at a distance between 200 and 1200 times further away from the Sun than the Earth.
The search for a ninth planet, or Planet X, has a long history, much of it consisting of myth and pseudo-science, but also a good deal of real science. It is important to note that Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin, the scientists who claim to have discovered the evidence for what they are currently calling “Planet 9,” have not seen it. Nobody has seen it. Yet. But this is not unusual. Neptune was discovered in 1846 when irregularities in the orbit of Uranus pointed to the gravitational effects of an eighth planet, and thus the world’s astronomers used the data to find it and see it for the first time.
This concept was dramatised, incidentally, in Star Wars, Episode II, Attack of the Clones, when Yoda advised a youthful Obi Wan Kenobi to “Go to the centre of gravity’s pull, and find your planet, you will.” Although it must be noted that only those who lurk in the dark regions of the internet believe that “Someone erased it from the archive memory”….
Similarly, Brown and Batygin claim that the perihelions (the point of an object’s orbit closest to the sun) of half a dozen objects in the Kuiper Belt, a group of small, Pluto sized “planets” far beyond the orbit of Pluto, fall roughly in the same region of space. This points to the gravitational pull of an as yet undiscovered large planet. They will now be using the 8-metre Subaru telescope in Hawaii to search the area of sky in which they believe it will most likely be found.
To read more about this, I highly recommend this article from Science.
This is tremendous news for humanity. Before we can even think of sending our civilisation interstellar, we will need to set a solid foundation in our own solar system. In this current decade we are preparing the groundwork for the colonisation of the solar system, having created a network of transport and communication systems which have made our planet more connected than at any time in its history. In the same way, I envisage the colonisation of our own solar system, and the building of transport and communication systems to bind it together, as its equivalent, only on a much grander scale.
Just as the International Space Station acts as our gateway to outer space, and the testing ground for the technologies, and the limits of the human body needed to make our solar system inhabitable, so the establishment of bases on bodies further and further from the sun will stretch our capabilities further in the quest to go interstellar.
I just wish I could live to see it.
Photo by Raven Vasquez