Massachusetts-sized object beyond Pluto hints at hidden Planet X

Massachusetts-sized object beyond Pluto hints at hidden Planet X

"We think there could be thousands of small bodies like 2015 TG387 out on the solar system's fringes, but their distance makes finding them very hard", said David Tholen of the University of Hawaii, who aided in the discovery.

Becker says astronomers have only found a handful of objects in addition to The Goblin that point to the existence of Planet Nine, so there is considerable skepticism that it's really out there.

It follows research by mathematicians at Caltech who found the existence of a massive ninth planet was the only explanation for the sculpting of the orbits of these other, smaller objects.

Most excitingly, the object's movements fit into previous theories regarding a possible "Planet X" hiding far away in our solar system, and could help astronomers to find it.

It's the prospect of potentially finding Planet Nine that has researchers salivating about 2015 TG387 and other celestial objects like it.

Full details about The Goblin have been submitted to The Astronomical Journal. Pluto, by comparison, is approximately between 30 and 50 AU. Pluto, meanwhile, is around 34 times as far from the Sun as Earth, so The Goblin really, really gets out there. In other words, it takes around 40,000 Earth years for it to travel once around the Sun, University of Hawaii's David Tholen said, adding that "there could be thousands of small bodies like 2015 TG387 out on the Solar System's fringes, but their distance makes finding them very hard". Earth is one AU from the sun, so the new object, at maximum, is 2,300 times further from the sun than we are.

2015 TG378's nickname comes from the letters TG in its official name, as well as a recognition of the fact that it was found around Halloween, the authors say.

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It's likely that 2015 TG387 is a dwarf planet the researchers said, because "it has a diameter near 300 kilometers (186.4 miles)". Embracing the near-Halloween October spirit - and for want of something pronounceable - its discoverers nicknamed 2015 TG387 "the Goblin".

Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science who is one of the co-discoverers, and his colleagues are among those who have observed similarities in the orbits of a number of very distant solar system objects, like 2015 TG387. "We are only seeing the tip of the ice berg", Sheppard said in an email. "For some 99 percent of its 40,000-year orbit, it would be too faint to see". But they are likewise too distant to be seen the vast majority of the time. "We don't even know the color of the object; we haven't gotten any spectroscopy on the object yet, or anything like that". The planet, if it exists, would be bigger than the Goblin or Pluto.

Prof Trujillo, of Northern Arizona University, ran computer simulations for different hypothetical Planet X orbits that explained how 2015 TG387 would actually be shepherded by its gravity. "With other large telescopes, it is like looking through a straw and thus they are good for observing things you know are there, but not for finding new things as their field of views are too small for covering large areas of sky", said Sheppard. Called either "Planet X" or "Planet Nine", this still-hypothetical world could remain undiscovered in much the same way The Goblin did.

The object was discovered as part of the team's ongoing hunt for unknown dwarf planets and Planet X. It is the largest and deepest survey ever conducted for distant Solar System objects.

"These distant objects are like breadcrumbs leading us to Planet X", study leaderScott Sheppard, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. "These simulations do not prove that there's another massive planet in our solar system, but they are further evidence that something big could be out there".

Sheppard hopes to find more objects like The Goblin to further pin down the location and orbit of the potential Planet Nine.

"Despite centuries of surveys, our understanding of the solar system remains incomplete", he said. "We are only just now uncovering what the very outer solar system might look like and what might be out there".

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