Is Planet X Linked to Mass Extinctions?

This artwork shows a rocky planet being bombarded by comets. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Planet Nine, the massive orb proposed to explain the clustered orbits of a half dozen remote Kuiper Belt asteroids, may have a darker side. Periodic mass extinctions on Earth, as indicated in the global fossil record, could be linked to the hypothetical planet according to research published by Daniel Whitmire, a retired professor of astrophysics and faculty member of the University of Arkansas Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Planet Nine is estimated to be 10 times more massive than Earth and currently orbiting about 1,000 times farther away from the Sun. Astronomers have been searching for a potential large planet — for years called “Planet X” — that might be implicated in a handful of major mass extinctions over the past 500 million years. During those times, between 50 and more than 90% of species on Earth perished in a geological heartbeat. The worst, dubbed the Permian-Triassic event or the Great Dying, occurred 250 million years ago and saw the disappearance of more than 90% of the planet’s life in a geological heartbeat.

Whitmire and his colleague, John Matese, first published research on the connection between Planet X and mass extinctions in the journal Nature in 1985 while working as astrophysicists at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. They proposed that perturbations from a 10th planet (Pluto was considered a planet back then) could fling a shower of comets from the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune in Earth’s direction every 28 million years in sync with recorded mass extinctions.

Two other ideas also proposed at the time they wrote their paper — a sister star to the Sun and vertical oscillations of the Sun as it orbits the galaxy — have since been ruled out because the timing is inconsistent with the extinction record. Only Planet X remained as a viable theory, and it’s now gaining renewed attention.
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Whitmire and Matese proposed that as Planet X orbits the Sun, its tilted orbit slowly rotates, causing the location of its perihelion (closest point to the Sun) to slowly precess or shift position along its orbit instead of remaining in the same place. Every planet precesses, so no surprises here.

But location can make a huge difference. The team proposed that Planet X’s slow orbital gyration directs it into the Kuiper Belt approximately every 27 million years, knocking comets into the inner Solar System. The dislodged comets not only smash into the Earth, they also vaporize and break apart in the inner Solar System as they get nearer to the Sun, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth. Add it up, and you have a recipe for cyclic destruction.

One thing to keep in mind is that their research led them to conclude that Planet X was only 5 times as massive as Earth and 100 times farther from the Sun. This doesn’t jive with the size and mass particulars for Planet Nine inferred by researchers Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown at Caltech earlier this year, but until someone tracks the real planet down, there’s room for argument.

Comet and asteroid showers are often cited as possible bad guys in extinction episodes. And why not? We have hard evidence of the asteroid impact that sealed the dinosaurs’s fate 65 million years ago and have seen some six impacts at Jupiter since 1994. It’s cosmic billiards out there folks, and the game’s not over.

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Astronomers Find Theoretical Evidence for Distant Gas Giant Planet in Our Solar System

Artistic rendering shows the distant view from theoretical Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side.  Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The astronomer known worldwide for vigorously promoting the demotion of Pluto from its decades long perch as the 9th Planet, has now found theoretical evidence for a new and very distant gas giant planet lurking at the far reaches of our solar system.

In a obvious reference to the planethood controversy, the proposed new planet is nicknamed ‘Planet Nine’ and its absolutely huge!

The possible planet has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and is believed to be gaseous, like Uranus and Neptune, according to Mike Brown of Caltech, who became famous during the contentious debate on Pluto’s planetary status. He announced the new finding today, Jan. 20, along with fellow Caltech researcher Konstantin Batygin.

The giant new planet orbits the sun some 20 times farther out than Neptune in the distant reaches of the Kuiper Belt. Neptune orbits the sun at an average distance of 2.8 billion miles.

Astronomers have been searching for decades for “Planet X” a large theorized planet beyond Pluto.

The theorized ‘Planet Nine’ travels in a highly elongated path that takes between 10,000 and 20,000 years to complete just one full orbit around the sun, according to Caltech statement describing the work.

Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin coauthored a paper describing their work on the discovery of the existence of the proposed gas giant in the current issue of the Astronomical Journal.

The paper is titled; “EVIDENCE FOR A DISTANT GIANT PLANET IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM” and is available here.

“This would be a real ninth planet,” says Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy, in a statement.

“There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that’s still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting.”

So far there is no confirmation of the existence of the planet.

It has not actually been observed but its existence is theorized through complex mathematical modeling and computer simulations.

Brown’s discovery of Eris in 2005, which orbits farther out than Pluto and is almost the same size as Pluto but smaller, sparked the IAU to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet in 2006.

Many planetary scientists, led by Alan Stern, do not agree with Pluto’s demotion.

Stern is the Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons probe which carried out history’s first flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015.

Among its numerous discoveries, New Horizons found that Pluto is a very geologically world even today and larger than Eris, and thus reigns as undisputed ‘King of the Kuiper Belt!”

In the Astronomical Journal paper, Batygin and Brown “show how Planet Nine helps explain a number of mysterious features of the field of icy objects and debris beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.”

“Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there,” says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science.

“For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system’s planetary census is incomplete.”

In a prior interview, Alan Stern has told me that he believes that a planet at least as large as Mars lurks somewhere far out in the Kuiper Belt.

Meanwhile Batygin and Brown are hunting for ‘Planet Nine’ and they encourage others to search too.

Since they only know the rough orbit of the object, they continue to “refine their simulation” to better pin down its location to more productively aim the telescopes along the highly elliptical path.

“I would love to find it,” says Brown. “But I’d also be perfectly happy if someone else found it. That is why we’re publishing this paper. We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching.”

Here’s a comment from NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences Jim Green, about today’s discovery:

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post Astronomers Find Theoretical Evidence for Distant Gas Giant Planet in Our Solar System appeared first on Universe Today.

Weekly Space Hangout – Dec. 11, 2015: Carolyn Collins Petersen

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Carolyn Collins Petersen -TheSpacewriter; CEO of Loch Ness Productions; author. Guests: Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg ) Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier ) Ramin Skibba ( / @raminskibba) Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / (…)Read the rest of Weekly Space Hangout – Dec. 11, 2015: Carolyn Collins Petersen (199 words) © Fraser […]