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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Planet X: Why the search for things that aren't there is still important.

As has been said, Truth is often stranger than fiction. Perhaps you've heard of Planet X. It is one of the popular subjects often purported by the many, true believers, hoaxsters and conspiracy theorists that buzz about the internet. As outlandish as some of these claims may now sound to our modern ears, they serve another purpose. And that is to remind us of a time when we didn't definitively know everything there is to know about everything. Theories abounded then just as they do now. For those who don't know about it, all one needs to do to find out is to enter the term "Planet X " or better yet "Nibiru" into the query field of your favorite search engine. Then you will see what I'm referring to.

This kind of subject matter on the far-flung fringe of actual science has for ages been excellent fodder for science fiction writers. I used it as one of  the locations in my last book, "A Paradox in Retrograde".  I did it for the same reason they did. Firstly, a rogue celestial visitor  from the frozen wastes still manages to capture the imagination. Secondly, despite our knowledge to the contrary, the notion of  the existence of a lost planet, has yet to be disproven.  The previous statement may ruffle some feathers, but it is a story rooted in hard observable science.

 Beginning in the late 19th-century observations of a perceived
perturbation in the orbits of the solar system's outer planets had led to the search of an elusive 9th planet. This search culminated in 1930 with the discovery by Clyde Tombaugh, of Planet X otherwise known as Pluto. This discovery was remarkable for many reasons. It being the first such discovery in the twentieth century had proven that that their theories may have been correct, and that there were major discoveries yet to be made. Today the work that he pioneered is ongoing. Astronomers both robotic and human continue to plot the lights against the black backdrop of space.

 Close up Pics of Pluto from New Horizon

Eventually, this class of bodies had been accepted as science fact  and given the name of trans-Neptunian objects. In the intervening years much as been discovered. With each discovery, our knowledge must evolve to reflect the richness and complexity of what is essentially our backyard.  The data streaming back from the New Horizons Probe currently sailing beyond Pluto will keep scientists busy  for years to come. Still others continue to stare out at the sky for that elusive movement of a planetary body. One such group of scientists using the ALMA telescope in Chile has recently claimed to have spied something remarkable. If what they're claiming is true, then we will need once again to rewrite the textbooks. It would seem some of their data indicates that a planetary object has been spotted in the direction of our closest star system, Centaurus. The debate they have started indicates that this barely visible phenomenon may be the farthest object of our own solar system.

diagram published in Smithsonian

Here are some other trans-Neptunian objects some discovered  fairly recently.