"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Science: You Never Know What's Out There

Which to me is what makes the universe interesting. It seems there just might be another couple of planets in our solar system:
At least two as-yet undiscovered planets as big as Earth or larger may be hiding in the outer fringes of the solar system, scientists believe.

The secret worlds are thought to exist beyond the orbits of Neptune, the furthest true planet from the Sun, and the even more distant tiny “dwarf planet” Pluto.

The evidence comes from observations of a belt of space rocks known as “extreme trans-Neptunian objects” (Etnos).

Orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune, Etnos should be distributed randomly with paths that have certain defined characteristics. But a dozen of the bodies have completely unexpected orbital values consistent with them being influenced by the gravitational pull of something unseen.

What surprises me about discoveries like this, and all the planets we're finding orbiting other stars, is the surprise in some quarters. I mean, it seems sort of inevitable that other stars would have planets, if for no other reason than that there's so much stuff floating around in space looking for a home. And we've known for a long time that our own solar system is a little more complicated than a bunch of planets with their attendant moons circling the sun in a nice, orderly fashion.

And, as it turns out, those who pay attention to such things have been thinking for a while that there's something out there:

Astronomers have spent decades debating whether a hidden planet beyond Pluto remained undiscovered.

The new research, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters, is based on analysis of an effect called the “Kozai mechanism”, by which a large body disturbs the orbit of a smaller and more distant object.

The scientists wrote: “In this scenario, a population of stable asteroids may be shepherded by a distant, undiscovered planet larger than the Earth …”

One problem is that the theory goes against predictions of computer simulations of the formation of the solar system, which state there are no other planets moving in circular orbits beyond Neptune. But the recent discovery of a planet-forming disk of dust and gas more than 100 astronomical units (AU) from the star HL Tauri suggests planets can form long distances away from the centre of a solar system.

The view from out there:

An artist’s impression of one of the two as-yet undiscovered planets. Photograph: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/PA

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