Skip to main content

Discovery of 139 new minor planets in our solar system may help find Planet Nine

Astronomers have discovered 139 new “minor planets” in our solar system, beyond the orbit of Neptune. These small objects could provide clues as to whether the mysterious Planet Nine, a hypothesized planet orbiting our sun which has not been directly observed, does really exist.

The minor planets were discovered using data from the Dark Energy Survey, a six-year project mainly focused on understanding dark energy. But the data collected is also useful for finding new bodies in our solar system, particularly trans-Neptunian objects or TNOs, because the survey covers a wide region of the sky in great detail.

“The number of TNOs you can find depends on how much of the sky you look at and what’s the faintest thing you can find,” Pedro Bernardinelli, graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and leader of the research, said in a statement.

There was a challenge in using the data this way, however, as the researchers had to come up with a new way to track movement.

“Dedicated TNO surveys have a way of seeing the object move, and it’s easy to track them down. One of the key things we did in this paper was figure out a way to recover those movements.”

With the new method in place and an enormous dataset to explore, the researchers were able to identify 400 candidate objects which were seen regularly in our sky. Then they looked for objects which appeared consistently and whittled the list down to 316 identified TNOs. Of these, 139 had not been discovered before.

The Blanco Telescope dome at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, where the Dark Energy Camera used for the recently completed Dark Energy Survey was housed.
The Blanco Telescope dome at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, where the Dark Energy Camera used for the recently completed Dark Energy Survey was housed. Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

As for Planet Nine, much of the evidence in favor of its existence comes from observing the movements of TNOs. Some TNOs have been seen to cluster in strange ways which could suggest the presence of an unseen but massive body like a planet. The addition of this new set of data gives more chances for astronomers to observe this phenomenon.

“There are lots of ideas about giant planets that used to be in the solar system and aren’t there anymore, or planets that are far away and massive but too faint for us to have noticed yet,” said co-author Professor Gary Bernstein. “Making the catalog is the fun discovery part. Then when you create this resource; you can compare what you did find to what somebody’s theory said you should find.”

The results are published in The Astronomical Journal Supplement Series.

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Venus is the only other planet in solar system with active volcanoes
venus atmsophere microbes 1024x1024 1

A composite image of the planet Venus as seen by the Japanese probe Akatsuki. Image from the Akatsuki Orbiter, built by Institute of Space and Astronautical Science/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

In the 1990s, data from the Magellan spacecraft revealed that Venus is a hellish world covered in volcanoes and lava flows. But before now, we didn't know whether this volcanic activity was ancient or recent. Now, new research using data from the Venus Express orbiter has revealed that the lava flows are recent and could be just a few years old, which suggests that the volcanoes are currently active.

Read more
Tiny dwarf planet discovered in our solar system is one-fifth the size of Pluto
hygiea dwarf planet pluto sphere image of

A new SPHERE/VLT image of Hygiea, which could be the Solar System’s smallest dwarf planet yet. ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

Out in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, numerous small bodies orbit around our sun. While most of these objects are asteroids, only one of them, Ceres, was considered a dwarf planet at 950 km (590 miles) in diameter. But now, astronomers from the European Space Agency have looked more closely at one of Ceres' little brothers, Hygiea, and determined that it may be our solar system's smallest dwarf planet at just 430 km (267 miles) in diameter.

Read more
Planet Nine could be a miniature black hole hiding in our solar system
planet nine black hole spiral galaxy and

An artist's impression of a black hole. ANDRZEJ WOJCICKI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The concept of a ninth planet in our solar system which orbits far beyond Neptune captured the public's imagination in 2016, and earlier this year the idea gained steam again when astronomers found more evidence in support of "Planet Nine's" existence. Now, a different team of astronomers has suggested an even more intriguing idea: That the strange body we're seeing evidence of is not a planet but a miniature black hole.

Read more