Predicting planets: why we are romanticizing the space science?
Recently the whole world seemed to have been enthused by reports that there exists a new planet that is at least ten times bigger than the mass of earth. This is not the first time that the rumors of appearance of a ninth planet or the Planet X have appeared in science journals.
More than a decade ago when the ninth planet Pluto was demoted as a dwarf planet, or even before it, reports of massive planets in our solar system, circling the sun have appeared. Many people feel enthused by such reports.
There is no denying the fact that this puts a serious question mark over our space agenciesâ€™ ability to detect massive bodies in our own solar system. When NASA claims sighting of habitable planets hundreds of light years away from our earth, this seems surprising that despite possessing powerful tools the same space agencies cannot detect planets in their own backyards.
Even more than hundred years ago, in the mid-19th century, astronomers hypothesised an extra planet in our solar system, orbiting between the Sun and Mercury. Without ever seeing it, they calculated its orbit and named it Vulcan — the only explanation, they thought, for small deviations in Mercury’s own orbit. But decades of searching yielded no proof, and finally in 1915, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity made sense of Mercury’s strange behaviour in a way which obviated the need for Vulcan. The search was abandoned.
It is needless to say that Vulcan is only one of many planets wrongly predicted to exist in our solar system over the decades. Nibiru, Tyche, and various versions of a “Planet X” beyond Neptune’s orbit, excited the public imagination before fizzling out. But in one very well-known case, mathematical modelling turned out to be right. The existence of Neptune — the eighth and furthest known planet from the Sun — was deduced from a pull observed on the orbit of Uranus. Scientists launched a telescope search, and the planet was detected within days.
Now at least two scientists said that they found a new planet at least 5000 the size of Neptune and 10 times the size of earth. Dubbed Planet Nine, it would perfectly explain the peculiar, clustered motion of a small group of comet-like bodies in the outer reaches of our solar system. The idea of adding a planet to the solar system’s arsenal caused great excitement, but experts cautioned on Thursday that the theory remains just that for now. And it may take years to prove.
“The work they’ve done is impressive. They’ve got a lot of information, they’ve been very careful. But really, this is just step number one,” Edward Bloomer of the Royal Observatory Greenwich told AFP. “Lots of other people around the world will be looking at this information… Even the team themselves will be re-running things, they’ll be making little tweaks to see if this holds up.”