The realm of the outer solar system; here be hypothetical worlds? (Credit: NASA).
Something kept floating around our astro-radar yesterday as we busily wrote about comet flybys, launches, and wacky space weather. Titles like “New Solar System Planet!” and “Solar Companion Found!” kept making a spurious appearance from unverified sources. I’m always suspicious of proclamations with exclamation points, as my spam folder is full of them. The traditional sources were mum about the whole affair… what’s up? I then did some late night research and discovered the whole online stir is yet another “non-troversy” in the spirit of the Betelgeuse supernova and the 13th zodiacal sign. Yes, there is some interesting science to the whole affair, and a good “teachable moment,” but old school media never lets reality get in the way of a good story…
The whole affair has its roots way back in the search for Planet X. Way back in the early days of planet hunting, it was found that you could predict the location of a new world by its gravitational tug. Lavoisier, a theoretical mathematician who distained actually looking through a telescope, discovered Neptune this way. A later search initiated by Percival Lowell turned up the ever controversial planet Pluto, discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.
Fast forward to the modern day era, a brave new solar system of Oort Clouds, Plutoids, and Kuiper Belt Objects. In 1999, astronomers John Matese and Daniel Whitmire from the University of Louisiana made a proposal that a massive but undiscovered object resides in the Oort Cloud. The claim is based on projected groupings of comet swarms along the ecliptic. One would expect long period comets to come into the inner solar system from more or less random directions and intervals; instead, a distinctive clustering over time is observed, one that might be predicted by the existence of a distant Jupiter mass object… and thus the hypothetical world of Tyche was born. The “planet” was christened rather appropriately after the Greek demigoddess of “luck” as an antithesis of Nemesis, another distant hypothetical world. What’s curious is that Matese and Whitmire actually give rough positional perimeters for Tyche in last years’ submission to the journal Icarus. A body such as Tyche would orbit at a distance equivalent to about 15,000 astronomical units (A.U.) once every 1.8 million years (!) For some sense of scale, Pluto orbits about 40 A.U., and the Oort Cloud reservoir of comets is predicted to extend from about 5,000 to 50,000 A.U. Scans through the old IRAS data limit any distant body larger than 5 Jupiter masses to a distance of >10,000 A.U.
So, why the fuss now? Well, the WISE (Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer) team will release the first portion of its infrared all sky survey as part of its follow-up NEOWISE mission this April, and the thinking is that a possibility exists that a distant 1-4 Jupiter mass body might just reveal itself… But let’s just state right now that this is a long shot. A solar system body larger than Jupiter would be big news, yes, but it’s far from proven. As noted by astronomer Mike Brown on his blog, some odd things are going on in the outer solar system, most notably concerning the wacky orbit of the dwarf planet Sedna. The whole concept sounds vaguely like the Nemesis hypothesis revisited; that our solar system has a large dark companion, such as a black/brown dwarf or even something more exotic like a black hole. Not that the last one is at all likely; I think we’d be seeing the x-ray high energy anomalies by now. A red dwarf or even a brown dwarf companion is remote as well; at about 13 Jupiter masses low grade deuterium fusion begins to occur and you would have a brown dwarf visible to spacecraft like WISE in the infrared wavelengths. Anyhow, this story has gotten new life by a recent article in The Independent, conspiracy sites are already abuzz about an even more fictional world named Nibiru that is supposed to rain death and destruction in 2012, and well, you get the idea; a perfect storm for a new doomsday non-troversy that the media seems so intent on perpetrating. Hey, it puts eyeballs on web-pages, in this cyber-hit driven world. (We couldn’t resist blogging about it!) It is fascinating to think of what might be out there, and that our solar system may not be as well known as we thought. It’s just a very long shot that something on an extremely long hypothetical orbit like Tyche would reveal itself this year. Ancient stellar passages may be just as likely culprit in braiding our Oort Cloud. Doubtless, this will become news again in April when the NEOWISE data is released, and scientists and amateurs alike will be scouring it for anything amiss… if nothing else, we’ll probably find lots of new asteroids and comets in the process. Will Tyche become reality, or is it destined to join the long list of Vulcans, Neiths, Liliths, (Look em up!) and Nemeses in the dust bin of solar system objects? Stay tuned!