New readings from Hubble offer a hint that a huge planet which has never been seen by human eyes could be lurking unseen at the dark edges of our solar system.
Scientists have debated the existence of a mysterious, unseen ‘Planet Nine’ for years.
Hubble has now spotted a planet outside our solar system which behaves similarly to what scientists think might lurk at the edge of ours.
It could offer crucial clues to the location (and violent history) of our own Planet Nine, the researchers believe.
The exoplanet called HD106906 is huge with the mass of 11 Jupiters, and orbits far away from its host star - just like Planet 9 does, if it exists.
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“It’s as if we have a time machine for our own solar system going back 4.6 billion years to see what may have happened when our young solar system was dynamically active and everything was being jostled around and rearranged,” said team member Paul Kalas of the University of California, Berkeley.
The exoplanet HD106906 b was discovered in 2013 with the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
But further observations with the Hubble space telescope over 14 years were able to calculate the planet’s orbit very precisely.
The exoplanet resides extremely far from its host pair of bright, young stars, more than 730 times the distance of Earth from the sun, and its orbit lasts 15,000 Earth years.
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The planet is creeping very slowly along its orbit, given the weak gravitational pull of its very distant parent stars - and its orbit is at a different angle to the stars’ debris discs.
“To highlight why this is weird, we can just look at our own solar system and see that all of the planets lie roughly in the same plane,” explained Nguyen.
“It would be bizarre if, say, Jupiter just happened to be inclined 30 degrees relative to the plane that every other planet orbits in. This raises all sorts of questions about how HD 106906 b ended up so far out on such an inclined orbit.”
The prevailing theory to explain how the exoplanet arrived at such a distant and strangely inclined orbit is that it formed much closer to its stars, about three times the distance that Earth is from the Sun.
Drag within the system’s gas disc caused the planet’s orbit to decay, forcing it to migrate inward toward its stellar hosts.
The gravitational forces from the whirling twin stars then kicked it out onto an eccentric orbit that almost threw it out of the system and into the void of interstellar space.
“Despite the lack of detection of Planet Nine to date, the orbit of the planet can be inferred based on its effect on the various objects in the outer solar system,” explained team member Robert De Rosa, of the European Southern Observatory in Santiago, Chile, who led the study’s analysis.
“This suggests that if a planet was indeed responsible for what we observe in the orbits of trans-Neptunian objects it should have an eccentric orbit inclined relative to the plane of the solar system. This prediction of the orbit of Planet Nine is similar to what we are seeing with HD 106906b."
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