Up telescope! Search begins for giant new planet

Tyche may be bigger than Jupiter and orbit at the outer edge of the solar system

If you grew up thinking there were nine planets and were shocked when Pluto was demoted five years ago, get ready for another surprise. There may be nine after all, and Jupiter may not be the largest.

The hunt is on for a gas giant up to four times the mass of Jupiter thought to be lurking in the outer Oort Cloud, the most remote region of the solar system. The orbit of Tyche (pronounced ty-kee), would be 15,000 times farther from the Sun than the Earth's, and 375 times farther than Pluto's, which is why it hasn't been seen so far.

But scientists now believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, Wise, and is just waiting to be analysed.

The first tranche of data is to be released in April, and astrophysicists John Matese and Daniel Whitmire from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette think it will reveal Tyche within two years. "If it does, John and I will be doing cartwheels," Professor Whitmire said. "And that's not easy at our age."

Once Tyche has been located, other telescopes could be pointed at it to confirm the discovery.

Whether it would become the new ninth planet would be decided by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The main argument against is that Tyche probably formed around another star and was later captured by the Sun's gravitational field. The IAU may choose to create a whole new category for Tyche, Professor Matese said.

The IAU would also have the final say about the gas giant's name. To the Greeks, Tyche was the goddess responsible for the destiny of cities. Her name was provisionally chosen in reference to an earlier hypothesis, now largely abandoned, that the Sun might be part of a binary star system with a dim companion, tentatively called Nemesis, that was thought responsible for mass extinctions on Earth. In myth, Tyche was the good sister of Nemesis.

Tyche will almost certainly be made up mostly of hydrogen and helium and will probably have an atmosphere much like Jupiter's, with colourful spots and bands and clouds, Professor Whitmire said. "You'd also expect it to have moons. All the outer planets have them," he added.

What will make it stand out in the Wise data is its temperature, predicted to be around -73C, four or five times warmer than Pluto. "The heat is left over from its formation," Professor Whitmire said. "It takes an object this size a long time to cool off."

Most of the billions of objects in the Oort Cloud – a sphere one light year in radius stretching a quarter of the distance to Alpha Centauri, the brightest star in the southern constellation – are lumps of dirty ice at temperatures much closer to absolute zero (-273C).

A few of these are dislodged from their orbits by the galactic tide – the combined gravitational pull from the billions of stars towards the centre of the Milky Way – and start the long fall into the inner solar system.

As these long-period comets get closer to the Sun, some of the ice boils off, forming the characteristic tails that make them visible.

Professors Matese and Whitmire first proposed the existence of Tyche to explain why many of these long-period comets were coming from the wrong direction. In their latest paper, published in the February issue of Icarus, the international journal of solar system studies, they report that more than 20 per cent too many of the long-period comets observed since 1898 arrive from a band circling the sky at a higher angle than predicted by the galactic-tide theory.

No other proposal has been put forward to explain this anomaly since it was first suggested 12 years ago. But the Tyche hypothesis does have one flaw. Conventional theory holds that the gas giant should also dislodge comets from the inner Oort Cloud, but these have not been observed.

Professor Matese suggests this may be because these comets have already been tugged out of their orbits and, after several passes through the inner solar system, have faded to the point that they are much harder to detect.

So if it is real, Tyche may not only be disrupting the orbits of comets, it may also overturn an established scientific theory.

You can download a PDF showing the position of Tyche by clicking here

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
Extras
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value
indybest

News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas