Is there a lurker in the Solar System?

The Solar System is much bigger than we learned in school, with a more complicated history.

NASA’s 2014 edition of “The Pillars of Creation,”
plus a speculative addition

This famous photograph shows a portion of the Eagle Nebula, about 7,000 lightyears away from us but still within the Milky Way Galaxy.  The nebula is a diffuse mass of dust, gas  (mostly hydrogen atoms, of course) and hundreds of stars aborning.  Spectroscopic red- and blue-shift data could prove me wrong, but to my eye those “pillars” are exactly what you’d expect to see if each had formed around a vortex such as I described in my previous post.  Those two bright rings look very much like solar nebulae, don’t they?

If that’s what the rings are, then the region between them should be even emptier than normal interstellar space (estimated at one hydrogen atom per cm³ or about 30 atoms per fluid ounce if you swing that way).  If you’re floating in vacuum and a whole solar system’s gravity is pulling you towards it, then that’s where you’ll go.  Interstellar space will be emptier without you.

By the way, space between galaxies is a million times emptier than space between stars.

The solar nebula hypothesis does a decent job of explaining the familiar structure — an inward succession of gas giants, then an asteroid belt, then rocky planets, all orbiting within a degree or so of their common Plane of The Ecliptic.  When the Sun lit up 4.6 billion years ago, its fierce light stripped hydrogen and other light elements from the region where the inner planets were coalescing.  Those atoms fled outward to the asteroids, the gas giants and beyond.  An eon later, the rocky planets collected water and other volatiles from impacting comets and such.

But some incoming objects, especially the long-period comets, seem to have no respect for the Ecliptic.  They come at us from all angles, an oddity that led Ernst Öpik and Jan Oort to suggest that the familiar planar Solar System is in fact enclosed by a spherical shell of loosely-held objects, ready to pelt us at any time from wherever they happened to be.

No-one’s yet seen that shell, but statistical models suggest it’s huge.  Earth is one Astronomical Unit (AU) from the Sun.  Neptune, our farthest-out known planet, orbits at about 30 AU.  Researchers think the Oort Cloud starts somewhere near 2,000 AU and runs out to 20,000 or more.  Some suggest it may contain material from other solar systems.

Astronomers also think the Cloud contains something like a trillion objects, pebble-size up to planetoids or bigger.  In a volume that large, the average distance between objects is about 30 AU.  When NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft finally flies through the Oort Cloud 900 years from now, accidentally colliding with something shouldn’t be a problem.

I drew the Oort Cloud much too small
compared to the purple Kuiper Belt Object orbits
(adapted from the Batygin-Brown paper)

In between the familiar Solar System and the Oort Cloud there’s a whole zoo of objects we’ve only started to glimpse in the past 25 years.  The Kuiper Belt is a doughnut of about 100,000 bodies that stay close to the Ecliptic Plane but orbit from just beyond Neptune’s orbit out to about twice as far.  (By my calculation the average distance between the rocks is, you guessed it, about 30 AU.)  These guys are heavily influenced by Neptune’s gravity and thought to be leftovers from our solar nebula.  Most short-period comets seem to come from the Kuiper Belt.

Recently, CalTech astrophysicists Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown, drew attention to a half-dozen objects with orbits that were strangely similar.  Unlike the other thousand-or-so Kuiper Belt Objects characterized so far, these all

  • go further than 250 AU from the Sun despite getting as close as 50 AU
  • have a perihelion (the point of closest approach to the Sun) at about the same equatorial latitude (see the diagram)
  • (the kicker) the perihelion drops below the ecliptic by about the same amount.

The authors account for these observations, and more, by hypothesizing a Planet 9 that roams out beyond the Kuiper Belt.  They call it “a mildly inclined, highly eccentric distant perturber.”  I know what you’re thinking, but in the paper those are technical terms.

~~ Rich Olcott

Plutonic Goofyness

Is Pluto wearing a space helmet?
No, that helmet is Pluto.
(Based on a cartoon by Andy Diehl)

Andy Diehl brings up a question worth considering over a tasty beverage.  How come Pluto’s a dog and Goofy’s a dog but Pluto gets the collar end of the leash?  Hardly seems fair.

Which brings us to that other controversial Pluto, the one that NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft visited last July.  (News flash — on 28 October, NASA announced that they’d received the very last of the data NH accumulated during that 2½-hour visit.)  Official Astronomy has reclassified Pluto from “planet” to “dwarf planet,” but NH honcho Alan Stern and much of the rest of the world say, “No way!”

The traditionalist position is, “But we’ve always called Pluto the ninth planet.”  Well, “always” only goes back to when the preternaturally persistent Clyde Tombaugh discovered the object in 1930.  At the time he found it Pluto was indeed the ninth “planet” out from the Sun.  However, it spends about 10% of each orbit* closer to the Sun than the eighth planet, Neptune.  So should we call it the “seven-and-a-fraction-th” planet?

No, because (1) that contravenes Official Astronomy’s rules, and (2) it’d be silly.

So what are the rules for what’s a planet?

  1. The object must be in orbit around its star.
  2. The object must be massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity.
  3. It must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

“Rounded” is a bit tricky.  It doesn’t mean “spherical” because if you spin a  sphere, centrifugal forces move mass towards its equator.  Earth’s equator is 13.3 miles further away from its center than its poles are.  Miller’s Planet in the Interstellar movie is also a spheroid, even further deformed by elongation towards the black hole it orbits, yet it still rates as “rounded by its gravity” and qualifies as a planet.

Clearing the neighborhood” means “my gravity dominates the motion of everything in my orbit.”  Earth and Jupiter, both acknowledged planets, each have retinues of asteroids in the Trojan positions, at the same distance from the Sun as the host planet but in regions 60º ahead of or behind it.  Even so, both planets often suffer messy encounters (remember Chicxulub and Chelyabinsk?) with asteroids and such that hadn’t gotten the memo.

Neptune meets all three criteria.  Its gravity dominates Pluto’s motion even though Pluto’s in a separate orbit.  For every three of Neptune’s trips around the Sun, Pluto makes exactly two.  The gravitational converse doesn’t hold, though.  Pluto’s mass is 0.1% of Neptune’s so the big guy doesn’t care.

pluto-orbits-1This video, from an Orbits Table display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, shows a different Plutonian weirdness.  We’re circling the Solar System at about 50 times Earth’s distance from the Sun (50 AU).  Reading inward, the white lines represent the orbits of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter.  The Asteroid Belt is the small greenish ring close to the Sun.  The four terrestrial planets are even further in.  The Kuiper Belt is the greenish ring that encloses the lot.

The  yellow-orange line is Pluto’s orbit.  Most of the Solar System lies within a thin pancake, the Plane of The Ecliptic. Pluto’s orbit is inclined 17º out of the Plane.  That’s odd.

Theory says that the System evolved from an eddy in a primordial cloud of dust and gas.  Gravity shrank that blob of stuff to form a disk at the eddy’s equator as it drew 99.9% of the system’s mass to form the Sun at the disk’s center.

Newton’s First Law is all about Conservation of Momentum.  When applied to circular motion, it says that if you’re whirling in a certain plane, you’ll continue whirling in that plane unless something knocks you out of that plane.  Hence, the Plane of The Ecliptic.

Pluto’s path is a puzzling challenge to the theory.  It was only a minor puzzle until the 1990’s when astronomers discovered a plethora of Pluto-type objects outside of Neptune’s orbit.  Most run way out of the Plane.  Worst is Eris, at inclination 44º .  Clearly, Pluto’s not special.  It belongs to a large tribe that Astrophysicists must explain if they’re to claim to  understand the Solar System.

~~ Rich Olcott

* – During its current 248-year orbit, Pluto was inside Neptune’s orbit between 1979 and 1999.