Is there another Giant Planet in Our Solar System?

Did you miss the news? Well just in case you did, the story is that we might have another planet in our solar system that is about four times the size of Jupiter. The original story came from the UK’s Independent here back on 13th February. Here is how they reported it …

The hunt is on for a gas giant up to four times the mass of Jupiter thought to be lurking in the outer Oort Cloud, the most remote region of the solar system. The orbit of Tyche (pronounced ty-kee), would be 15,000 times farther from the Sun than the Earth’s, and 375 times farther than Pluto’s, which is why it hasn’t been seen so far.

But scientists now believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, Wise, and is just waiting to be analysed.

Wow, a new giant planet, that would be amazing if true, but is it?

If we do truly wish to dig into this then we need to go directly to the article published by the Astronomers John Matese and Daniel Whitmire, who have suggested that Planet Tyche just might exist and see what evidence they have. You can find the abstract of the article they published in 1999 about this here. Did you notice the date? … yep, its 1999, thats 12 years ago, so this is not new.

What these chaps did was to ponder over the orbits of comets. If you measured enough, would you see any influences, or would it just be random. Well, they claim you can indeed see a pattern that suggests a planet is out there. However, don’t get too excited, the Astronomer Phil Plait notes here

I read their papers, and thought the data were interesting but unconvincing. The sample size was too small. A bigger study was done, but again the effects weren’t quite enough to rise to the level of breakthrough. I’m not saying the astronomers are wrong — the data were certainly provocative, and potentially correct! Just not firm enough.

So, in essence, this is not a done deal either way, its not a “No”, nor is it a “Yes”, we simply do not yet know.

If it is out there, then the numbers would be astonishing. It would be about a quarter of a light year out, (thats about 15,000 AU). To put that in context, we are 1 AU out here on earth. There is also speculation that it could be up to four times the mass of Jupiter, and would take about 1.8 million years to orbit the sun once.

What is new now about all this, the reason it made the news, is that there is a belief that the NASA satellite WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer), which has scanned the entire sky over the past year or so, just might have captured some evidence. Its just a hope, not an actual discovery. So, here is the core update from the independent article…

The first tranche of [WISE] data is to be released in April, and astrophysicists John Matese and Daniel Whitmire from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette think it will reveal Tyche within two years. “If it does, John and I will be doing cartwheels,” Professor Whitmire said. “And that’s not easy at our age.”

If you find a claim in the media that this planet is real and has been discovered – be skeptical – its still inconclusive, all that is new is that we now have data to sift through for evidence.

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