A dwarf planet near Neptune that orbits the sun backwards could hold the key to finding Planet X, according to Harvard University astronomers.
Dwarf planet Niku, the Chinese word for “rebellious,” is unusual because angular momentum forces every planet and asteroid in a solar system to spin in the same counter-clockwise direction, astronomers wrote in their study. The object measures just 124 miles in diameter.
“The orbit of Niku is unusual in that it is nearly perpendicular to the plane of the solar system,” Dr. Matthew Holman, an astronomer on the team that discovered Niku, told Universe Today.
“More than that, it is orbiting in the opposite direction of most solar system bodies,” Holman said. “Furthermore, there are a few bodies that share the same or orbital plane, with some orbiting prograde and some orbiting retrograde. That was unexpected.”
Niku’s mysterious orbital pattern distance from the sun could be evidence of the much sought-after Planet X.
Astronomers believe hypothetical Planet X lies at the outer edge of our solar system and is about 10 times the size of Earth. Some scientists believe Planet X’s gravity may be tugging on NASA’s Cassini probe that’s orbiting Saturn. No one has ever obtained any direct evidence of the planet.
“Planet Nine seems to be gravitationally influencing another nearby population of bodies that are also orbiting nearly perpendicular to the plane of the solar system,” Holman said. “Those objects have much larger orbits that also come closer to sun at their closest approach. The similarity (perpendicular) nature of Niku’s orbit to that of the more distant population hints at a connection.”
Holman’s team found Niku using both the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System 1 Survey (Pan-STARRS 1).
The research was financially supported by a grants from NASA’s Planetary Science Division and the National Science Foundation.
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