Bridey Heing
August 17, 2015 8:39 am

There has been so much going on space lately! With meteor showers and the first close-up pictures of Pluto, we’re loving all the chances to understand a little more about our universe. But the latest study to catch our attention is less about what’s going on now, and more about what was going on way, way back. Because it turns out we might have had a giant planet in our solar system that is no longer there.

We currently have four gas giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. But a new study has found that we could have had five up to four billion years ago. Astronomers and researchers at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder have identified evidence in the Kuiper Belt that hints at the fate of this planet all those billions of years ago.

“The Kuiper Belt is a perfect clue to understanding how the solar system evolved since its formation,” Dr. David Nesvorny, author of the study, told New Scientist.

In the Kuiper Belt, Nesvorny and his team found debris believed to once have been in Neptune’s orbit. But at some point, something happened to push the debris, called the “kernel,” away from Neptune and into the Kuiper Belt. And according to simulations, it was probably a collision between Neptune and another planet that caused the debris to move out of Neptune’s gravitational pull.

According to Nesvorny, it couldn’t have been one of our known planets that bumped into Neptune. It would have been another planet, which could have been pushed out of our solar system and out into space by the collision.

“I tend to believe that it may be very difficult to find any evidence for the fifth planet,” Nesvorny said in an email to The Huffington Post. “I started looking into [the] formation of the Kuiper Belt, because I was worried that the orbital structures seen there are inconsistent with my model. Now I realized that the opposite may be true. It was certainly a surprise.”

The ultimate fate of the mysterious fifth planet is, of course, unknown. It could be way out in the depths of space, but we may never know. This research does, however, give us a better understanding of how our solar system has evolved over time, and what it could have looked like billions of years ago.

(Image via iStock)

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