Is There a Planet 9?

Before I start, I should remind everyone of the solar system yardstick: the unit of measurement called the Astronomical Unit, or AU, which is the distance from Earth to the Sun. I am also going to define a mass unit, the emu, which is the mass of the Earth, or Earth mass unit.

As you know, there are eight planets, with the furthest out being Neptune, which is 30 AU from the Sun. Now the odd thing is, Neptune is a giant of 17 emu, Uranus is only about 14.5 emu, so there is more to Neptune than Uranus, even though it is about 12 AU further out. So, the obvious question is, why do the planets stop at Neptune, and that question can be coupled with, “Do they?” The first person to be convinced there had to be at least one more was Percival Lowell, he of Martian canal fame, and he built himself a telescope and searched but failed to find it. The justification was that Neptune’s orbit appeared to be perturbed by something. That was quite reasonable as Neptune had been found by perturbations in Uranus’ orbit that were explained by Neptune. So the search was on. Lowell calculated the approximate position of the ninth planet, and using Lowell’s telescope, Clyde Tombaugh discovered what he thought was planet 9.  Oddly, this was announced on the anniversary of Lowell’s birthday, Lowell now being dead. As it happened, this was an accidental coincidence. Pluto is far too small to affect Neptune, and it turns out Neptune’s orbit did not have the errors everyone thought it did – another mistake. Further, Neptune, as with the other planets has an almost circular obit but Pluto’s is highly elliptical, spending some time inside Neptune’s orbit and sometimes as far away as 49 AU from the Sun. Pluto is not the only modest object out there: besides a lot of smaller objects there is Quaoar (about half Pluto’s size) and Eris (about Pluto’s size). There is also Sedna, (about 40% Pluto’s size) that has an elliptical orbit that varies the distance to the sun from 76 AU to 900 AU.

This raises a number of questions. Why did planets stop at 30 AU here? Why is there no planet between Uranus and Neptune? We know HR 8977 has four giants like ours, and the Neptune equivalent is about 68 AU from the star, and that Neptune-equivalent is about 6 times the mass of Jupiter. The “Grand Tack” mechanism explains our system by arguing that cores can only grow by major bodies accreting what are called planetesimals, which are bodies about the size of asteroids, and cores cannot grow further out than Saturn. In this mechanism, Neptune and Uranus formed near Saturn and were thrown outwards and lifted by throwing a mass of planetesimals inwards, the “throwing”: being due to gravitational interactions. To do this there had to be a sufficient mass of planetesimals, which gets back to the question, why did they stop at 30 AU?

One of the advocates for Planet 9 argued that Planet 9, which was supposed to have a highly elliptical orbit itself, caused the elliptical orbits of Sedna and some other objects. However, this has also been argued to be due to an accidental selection of a small number of objects, and there are others that don’t fit. One possible cause of an elliptical orbit could be a close encounter with another star. This does happen. In 1.4 million years Gliese 710, which is about half the mass of the Sun, will be about 10,000 AU from the Sun, and being that close, it could well perturb orbits of bodies like Sedna.

Is there any reason to believe a planet 9 could be there? As it happens, the exoplanets encylopaedia lists several at distances greater that 100 AU, and in some case several thousand AU. That we see them is because they are much larger than Jupiter, and they have either been in a good configuration for gravitational lensing or they are very young. If they are very young, the release of gravitational energy raises them to temperatures where they emit yellow-white light. When they get older, they will fade away and if there were such a planet in our system, by now it would have to be seen by reflected light. Since objects at such great distances move relatively slowly they might be seen but not recognized as planets, and, of course, studies that are looking for something else usually encompass a wide sky, which is not suitable for planet searching.For me, there is another reason why there might be such a planet. In my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I outline a mechanism by which the giants form, which is similar to that of forming a snowball: if you press ices/snow together and it is suitably close to its melting point, it melt-fuses, so I predict the cores will form from ices known to be in space: Jupiter – water; Saturn – methanol/ammonia/water; Uranus – methane/argon; Neptune – carbon monoxide/nitrogen. If you assume Jupiter formed at the water ice temperature, the other giants are in the correct place to within an AU or so. However, there is one further ice not mentioned: neon. If it accreted a core then it would be somewhere greater than 100 AU.  I cannot be specific because the melting point of neon is so low that a number of other minor and ignorable effects are now significant, and cannot be ignored. So I am hoping there is such a planet there.

Oumuamua (1I) and Vega

Oumuamua is a small asteroidal object somewhere between 100 – 1000 meters long and is considerably longer than it is broad. Basically, it looks like a slab of rock, and is currently passing through the solar system on its way to wherever. It is our first observation of an interstellar object hence the bracketed formal name: 1 for first, I for interstellar. How do we know it came from interstellar space? Its orbit has been mapped, and its eccentricity determined. The eccentricity of a circular orbit is zero; an eccentricity greater than zero but less than one means the object is in an elliptical orbit, and the larger the eccentricity, the bigger the difference between closest and furthest approach to the sun. Oumuamua was found to have an eccentricity of 1.1995, which means, being greater than 1, it is on a hyperbolic orbit. It started somewhere where the sun’s gravity is irrelevant, and it will continue on and permanently leave the sun’s gravitational field. We shall never see it again, so the observation of it could qualify it for entry in “The Journal of Irreproducible Results”.

Its velocity in interstellar space (i.e.without the sun’s gravitational effects) was 26.3 km/s. We have no means of knowing where it came from, although if is trajectory is extrapolated backwards, it came from the direction of Vega. Of course it did not come from Vega, because when it passed through the space that Vega now occupies, Vega was somewhere else. Given there is no sign of ice on Oumuamua, which would form something like a cometary tail, it presumably came from the rocky zone closer to its system’s star, and this presumably has given rise to the web speculation that Oumuamua was some sort of alien space ship. Sorry, but no, it is not, and it does not need motors to enter interstellar space.

The way a body like Oumuamua could be thrown into interstellar space goes like this. There has to be a collision between two rocky bodies that are big enough to form fragments of the required size and the collision has to be violent enough to give the fragment a good velocity. That will also make a lot of dust. The fragments would be assumed to then go into elliptical orbits, but if there are both rocky planets and giants, the body could be ejected in the same way the Voyager space craft have left our solar system, namely through gravity assists. If the object is on the right trajectory it could get a gravity assist from an earth-like rocky planet, then another one from a giant that could give it enough impetus to leave the system. This presumably happened a long time ago, so we have no idea where the object came from.

Notwithstanding that, Oumuamua brought Vega to my attention, and it is, at least for me, an interesting star. That, of course, is because I have published a theory of planetary formation that is at odds with the generally accepted one. Vega has about twice the mass of the sun, and because it is bigger, it burns faster, and will have a life of about a billion years. It is roughly half-way through that, so it won’t have had time for planets to evolve intelligent life. The concentration of elements heavier than helium in Vega is about a third that of the sun. Vega also has an abnormally fast rate of rotation, so much so that it is about 88% of what would be required to start the star breaking up. This is significant because one of the oddities of our solar system is that the bulk of the angular momentum resides in the planets, while by far the bulk of the mass lies in the star. The implication might be that the lower level of heavier elements meant that Vega did not form cores fast enough and hence it does not have the giant planets of sufficient size to have taken up sufficient angular momentum. The situation could be like an ice skater who spins very fast, but slows the rotation by extending her arms. If the arms are very short, the spin cannot be slowed as much.

The infra-red emissions from Vega are consistent with a dust disk from about 70 – 100 A.U. out to 330 A.U. from the star (an A.U. is the distance from the sun to the Earth). This is assumed to have arisen from recent collisions of objects comparable to those in the Kuiper Belt here. There is apparently another dusty zone at 8 A.U., which would have to have originated from collisions between rocky objects. So far there is no evidence of planets around Vega, but equally there is no evidence there are none. We view Vega almost aligned with its axis of rotation, so most of the usual techniques for finding planets will not work. The transiting technique of the Kepler program requires us to be aligned with the ecliptic (which should be aligned with the equator) and the Doppler technique has similar limitations, although it has more tolerance for deviation. The Doppler technique detects the gravitational wobble of the star and if you could detect such a wobble directly, you could see it from along the polar axis. Unfortunately, we can’t, at least not yet, and worse, detecting such wobbles works best with very large planets around small stars. Here, if you follow my theory and accept the low metallicity, we expect small planets around a very large star. Direct observation has so far only worked for the first few million years of the star, where giant planets are radiating yellow to white light from their surface temperature that is so hot because of the gravitational accretion energy. These cool down reasonably quickly.

What grabbed my attention about Vega was the 8 A.U. dust zone. That can only be generated by a number of collisions because such dust zones have to be replenished. That is because solar radiation slows dust down, and it gradually falls into the star. So to have a good number of frequent collisions, you need a very large number of objects that could collide, which effectively requires a belt of boulders. So why have they not collided and formed a planet, when the standard theory of planetary formation says planets are formed by the collision of boulders to form planetesimals, and these collide to form embryos, which collide to form planets. In my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I provide an answer, which is basically that to form rocky planets, the collisions have to happen in the accretion disk, and they happen very fast, and they happen because water vapour in the disk helps set cement. Once the accretion disk is removed, further accretion is impossible, other than from objects colliding with a big enough object for gravity to hold all the debris. Accordingly, collisions of boulder-sized objects or asteroids will make dust, and that would create a dust belt that would not last all that long. The equivalent of the Kuiper Belt around Vega appears to be between 3 – 6 times further out. In my theory, if the planet accreted in the same as the sun, it would be approximately 8 times further out. However, lower dust content may make it harder to radiate energy, hence accretion may be slower. If this second belt scales accordingly, it could correspond to our asteroid belt.  We know occasional collisions did occur in our asteroid belt because we see families of smaller fragments whose trajectories extrapolate back to a singe event. So maybe dust belts are tolerably common for short periods in the life of a star. It would not be a great coincidence we see one around Vega; there are a huge number of stars, we see a very large number of accretion disks, so dust belts should turn up sooner or later.

Finally, why does the star spin faster? Again, in my theory, the planets accrete from the solid and take their angular momentum, but then they also take angular momentum from the disk gas through a mechanism similar to the classical Magnus force. Vega has less dust to make planets, hence less angular momentum is taken that way, and because the planets should be smaller there is less gravity to take angular momentum from the gas, and more gas anyway. So the star retains a higher fraction of its angular momentum. All of this does not prove that my theory is right, but it is comforting that it at least has some sort of plausible support. If interested further, check out