First, we find out that Pluto isn’t really a planet. Then, we discover the existence of its long lost twin, Eris. And now, the plot thickens:
California Institute of Technology astronomers Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin published a paper in the The Astronomical Journal today explaining why they believe they’ve found a giant planet, nicknamed Planet 9, orbiting our solar system twenty times farther away than Neptune. According to a Caltech news release, they think that it would take this new planet between 10,000 and 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around our sun.
“For the first time in over 150 years,” Batygin explains, “There is solid evidence that the solar system’s planetary census is incomplete.” The last time a planet was discovered was Neptune in 1846 (unless you’re counting Pluto in 1930).
While the two haven’t actually haven’t seen Planet 9 yet, they used mathematical modeling and computer simulations to reach their conclusion:
“We could have stayed quiet and quietly spent the next five years searching the skies ourselves and hoping to find it. But I would rather somebody find it sooner, than me find it later,” Brown told The Associated Press.
Basically, the two astronomers infer the presence of this new planet by analyzing movement patterns of other space objects in the Kuiper Belt just beyond Neptune, which they conclude are being affected by the gravitational pull of this “distant, eccentric perturber.”
“We haven’t seen it, but we have felt it.” Brown said. He adds, “We have felt a great disturbance in the force.”
Brown (who, by the way, led the effort in 2003 to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status and wrote a book about it called How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming) says Planet 9 would be “the most planet-y of the planets in the whole solar system” because of the size of its gravitational pull. “Not to mention the fact that it’s 5,000 times the mass of Pluto,” he says.
And once Planet 9 is seen and declared a planet, TIME reports that Brown’s and Batygin’s personal name preference for the new planet would be “George.” British astronomer William Herschel, who discovered Uranus, also originally wanted to name the planet “Georgium Sidus,” after King George III.
“All those people who are mad that Pluto is no longer a planet can be thrilled to know that there is a real planet out there still to be found,” Pluto Killer Brown says. “Now we can go and find this planet and make the solar system have nine planets once again.”
For now, without a verifiable observation of the planet itself, this is still technically a theoretical discovery. But the team at Caltech have mapped its path and are calling on skywatchers all over the world to be on the look out: