Is A New Planet Lurking Beyond Pluto? Discovery Of Dwarf Raises Possibility

By Ben Wolford on March 27, 2014 5:29 PM EDT

The newly discovered dwarf planet would look something like Eris, shown here in an artist's depiction with the sun in the background. (Image: CalTech/NASA)
The newly discovered dwarf planet would look something like Eris, shown here in an artist's depiction with the sun in the background. (Image: CalTech/NASA)

In just this past week, human understanding of the solar system has grown significantly. First scientists found out that asteroids can have rings. Now, astronomers report in Nature they have spotted another dwarf planet out beyond Neptune, a region of tiny rocky worlds that includes Pluto and a similar rock called Sedna. This new one is smaller, orbits the sun in an uneven orbit, and has been named 2012VP113.

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"The really interesting thing about Sedna and VP113 is it sort of shows how little we know about our own solar system," co-author Chadwick Trujillo, of the Gemini Observatory, told the CBC. Its discovery may also suggest there's something really big even farther away, almost a lightyear from the sun, that's stretching these dwarf planets into their elliptical orbits. But that theory is little more than a guess at this point.

The discovery of 2012VP113, named in honor of Vice President Joe Biden, fleshes out the picture of our solar system, whose outer reaches, some 5 billion miles away, are significantly less understood than the seven other planets closer to home. That lack of understanding was underscored when astronomers demoted Pluto, considered the ninth planet since 1930, to dwarf planet in 2006. They did it because they kept finding more and more objects like it in a region of icy mini-planets called the Kuiper Belt.

So far, this is basically what we know for sure about the solar system: there are solid inner planets, like Earth, and some asteroids close to the sun; a few massive, gaseous globes are out a little farther; and billions of miles beyond that is the Kuiper Belt, characterized by cold, rocky objects 600 miles across. There may be one more layer even farther out there called the Oort Cloud, a place so far it takes the sun's light a year to get there. Many comets are thought to originate there, and it's where Trujillo speculates another planet 10 times the size of Earth may live.

But for now it may be impossible to know for sure. Current technology has trouble detecting these things. "Some of these inner Oort cloud objects could rival the size of Mars or even Earth. This is because many of the inner Oort cloud objects are so distant that even very large ones would be too faint to detect with current technology," co-author Scott Sheppard, of the Carnegie Institute for Science, said in a statement.

2012VP113 was only discovered at its perihelion, the moment when its orbit comes closest to the sun. But there is a NASA spacecraft called New Horizons on its way out to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt as we speak. It should arrive during the summer of 2015. Scientists are hoping closer observation can explain more about the origin of these rocks. Did they form along with the other planets and somehow get swept deep into space? Or were they members of another solar system, sucked up by the sun when it was born about 4.6 billion years ago? "They could tell us a lot about how our solar system formed and evolved," Sheppard says. 

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