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By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

6/13/2014 (9 months ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Smaller planets hint at existence of larger bodies farther out.

While astronomy enthusiasts have strong personal opinions about whether or not Pluto should be regarded as a planet,  Spanish astronomers think there's a bigger question to be answered lurking in the farthest reaches of the solar system. They think there could be at least two massive planets orbiting the sun at a distance so great, we cannot spot them.

There could be more planets beyond Pluto.

There could be more planets beyond Pluto.

Highlights

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

6/13/2014 (9 months ago)

Published in Technology

Keywords: Planets, planet X, Pluto


LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - From Pluto and beyond, there exists a class of objects known as "minor planets." These small, rocky bodies are smaller than our moon, but sometimes larger than Pluto. They orbit like planets, for the most part, but there appears to be a pattern in their orbits that suggests something much larger is interacting with them.

The universe is governed by physical laws, most of which are quite well understood. These laws are so well understood that scientists can accurately infer the existence of other, unseen objects based on how visible objects behave. In this case, the behavior of smaller rocky minor planets such as Sedna and dwarf planet VP 113, hint at the presence of two larger planets in the outer fringes of the solar system.

St. Dominic de Guzman, patron saint of astronomers.

Spanish astronomers from the Complutense University of Madrid have noticed that these small rocky objects are moving in groups and appear to be getting tugged one way or another. The only way such behavior is possible is if there is another, much larger planet pulling at them, shepherding them into common orbits.

Based on current observations, astronomers estimate that a large planet, about 10 times the mass of Earth, lurks about 250 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Sun, or about 250 times the average distance between the Earth and Sun.

 A smaller planet, between the size of Mars and Saturn, looms a little closer, about 200 AU away.

These planets probably orbit in resonance with the rocky bodies that are being observed, just as Pluto and Neptune orbit in resonance. For example, Neptune makes three orbits around the Sun for every two of Pluto.

These distant planets would be large, but still difficult to spot because they would inhabit a corner of the solar system so far out that sunlight would barely hit their surface. In fact, the sun would only appear as a very bright star from those planets.

Still, their gravity could be detected and observed by watching their influence on closer, visible objects.

So are there two massive planets out there shepherding smaller planets in their orbits? It's too soon to know, and without direct observational evidence, scientists will remain skeptical. However, we can rest assured they're looking and if another planet or two are found, their discovery could recast Pluto as a very minor player in a much bigger play.

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