The mystery planet that could destroy the Earth


Just in time for summer movie season comes news that something huge is lurking out there at the edge of the solar system. It’s really big. It’s never before been detected. It’s warping gravity fields.

No, it’s not the latest Michael Bay disaster-fest or the mothership from “Independence Day.” It’s not the hypothesized Planet 9 that everyone was talking about a little over a year ago. Probably it’s another planet. Or maybe that mothership.

Back in 2016, the Internet was all atwitter with the news that astronomers believed they had located another planet at the edge of the solar system. Planet 9, as they called it, was discovered through a study of disturbances in the orbits of Sedna and other less-than-planet-size objects out there in the vicinity of Pluto (which was a planet when most of us were kids and now isn’t).

This area is known as the Kuiper Belt. Astronomers, who don’t like to waste mental energy deciding what to call things they study, have a name for objects in the Kuiper Belt: Kuiper Belt Objects. It is through modeling the movement of these KBOs (see what I mean?) that the search for Planet 9 has proceeded. Nobody has seen Planet 9 yet, even with the most powerful telescopes, although with the help of millions of citizen astronomers, researchers have narrowed the field of possible suspects.

Anyway, it turns out that Planet 9 is not the only massive object out there warping the orbits of the KBOs. According to soon-to-be-published research by Kat Volk and Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona, there’s another one. It’s called . . . well, it doesn’t have a name yet, but we can make a good guess.

Malhotra has such a nice way with an explanation that she could play the scientist in the movie version:

“Imagine you have lots and lots of fast-spinning tops, and you give each one a slight nudge . . . If you then take a snapshot of them, you will find that their spin axes will be at different orientations, but on average, they will be pointing to the local gravitational field of Earth.”

She continues:

“We expect each of the KBOs’ orbital tilt angle to be at a different orientation, but on average, they will be pointing perpendicular to the plane determined by the sun and the big planets.”

Only the angles are wrong. They’re warped in a slightly different direction, as they would be if the gravity of another planet were affecting them. But Planet 9, wherever it is, would be too far away to have the effects they have found. So there is almost certainly another mass out there. (The researchers estimate only a 1 percent to 2 percent possibility that the measurements represent a statistical fluke.)

You don’t have to be a science nerd to be fascinated. You can be a garden-variety sci-fi fan. Or you could just happen to like disaster movies.

The researchers tell us that these unseen planets are rogues. At some point they wandered into the solar system, and were captured by the gravity of Sol, our puny little sun. Now they’re stuck in orbit, messing with our calculations.

Maybe. But maybe not. Let’s sit back and don our 3-D glasses and grab a handful of popcorn (or perhaps don our foil hats) as we take a moment to consider a more sobering possibility. Here’s the thing to remember about rogue planets: They’re not just wanderers; they can be destroyers, too. Simulations tell us that some 60 percent of rogue planets that enter the solar system would bounce out again. But in 10 percent of cases, the rogue will take another planet along as it departs.

Just like that, Neptune is gone. Or Mars. Or, you know, us.

Tell me that’s not a weapon of interstellar war. (OK, fine, the capture of another planet would take hundreds of centuries. So it’s a weapon of war for a very patient species. Or one that perceives time differently. But how do we know it’s not already happening? Anyway, never mess with the narrative!)

And there’s something else for the sci-fi paranoiac to chew on along with the popcorn. The sequence. In early 2016, astronomers find a disturbance in the Kuiper Belt Objects and think “planet.” Fine, natural phenomenon. Then this year, they find another disturbance and think “another planet.” Fine, natural phenomenon. Then how is it that we never noticed before? Maybe the disturbances are . . . recent. So if by chance we’re soon told of a third disturbance, then by the James Bond theory of conspiracy it’s enemy action.

Cue heavy overdone music. Cue our most powerful weapons having no effect. Cue a broken family trying to reunite. Cue Roland Emmerich. I mean, somebody’s got to make this movie, right? I’ll be there on opening day.

NASA’s Mission to Europa

Let's Talk About NASA's Mission to Europa

The search for life in the Solar System is about the hunt for water. Wherever we find liquid water on Earth, we find life. I’m talking everywhere. In the most briny, salty pools in Antarctica, in the hottest hot springs in Yellowstone, under glaciers, and kilometers deep underground.

So we go searching for liquid water in the Solar System.

You might be surprised to learn that Jupiter’s moon Europa has the most water in the entire Solar System. If you took all the water on Earth, collected it into a big sphere, it would measure almost 1,400 kilometers across.

Europa’s water would measure nearly 1,800 kilometers.All that water exists in a layer around Europa, encased in a layer of ice. How thick? We don’t know.

Is there life down there? We don’t know. You can say there might be, and it wouldn’t be untrue. However, if you say there isn’t, that’s way less interesting for clickbait purposes. Whenever we don’t know the answers to fundamental and intriguing questions like that, it’s time to send a mission.

Good news! An actual mission to Europa is in the works right now. In 2015, NASA approved the development of an orbiter mission to Europa. If all goes well, and nothing gets cancelled, a spacecraft will launch in the 2020s, carrying 9 instruments to Europa. Most will be familiar cameras, mass spectrometers, and the like, to study the surface of Europa to a high level of resolution. Over the course of 45 flybys, the spacecraft will get down as close as 25 kilometers and capture it with incredible resolution.

Perhaps the most exciting, and controversial instrument on board the new Europa Orbiter mission will be its ice-penetrating radar. Mission planners battled over installing a radar this sophisticated, as it will be an enormous drain on the orbiter’s power.

This for us is incredibly exciting. It will allow the spacecraft to map out the depth and thickness of Europa’s icy exterior. Is it thick or thin? Are there pockets of water trapped just below the surface, or is it tough shell that goes on for dozens of kilometers?

The worst case scenario is that the shell goes thicker than the radar can reach, and we won’t even know how far it goes.

Whatever happens, the Europa orbiter will be a boon to science, answer outstanding questions about the moon and the chances of finding life there.

We’re just getting started. What we really want to send is a lander. Because of the intense radiation from Jupiter, the Sun, and space itself, the surface of the ice on Europa would be sterilized. But dig down a few centimeters and you might find life that’s protected from the radiation.

A future Europa lander might be equipped with a heated drill attached to a tether. The lander would be have with a heat-generated radioisotope thermoelectric generator, like most of NASA’s big, outer Solar System spacecraft.

But in addition to using it for electricity, it’ll use the raw heat to help a tethered drill to grind through the ice a few meters and sample what’s down there.

Drilling more than a few meters is probably the stuff of science fiction. Russian scientists in Antarctica drilled for almost two decades to get through 4,000 meters of ice above Lake Vostok. Imagine trying to get through 100 kilometers of the stuff, on a distant world, with a robot.

But, since I’ve talked about moving the Sun, and terraforming the Moon, maybe I shouldn’t put any bounds on my imagination. Nuclear-powered Europa submarines will get us swimming with the singing Europan space whales in no time.

Europa is the best place to search the Solar System for life, and I’m excited to see what the upcoming Europa Orbiter mission turns up. And I’m even more excited about the possibility of any future lander missions.

Fraser Cain – Universe Today

Voyager 1 Nears The Edge Of The Solar System

After traveling for 37 years, Voyager I is recording pulses from the sun that confirm it has entered a different region near the edge of the solar system called interstellar space.


Voyager I is the “farthest human-made probe from Earth, and the first to enter the vast sea between stars,” according to NASA. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Voyager I spacecraft has been steadily journeying away from the sun to the outer reaches of the solar system since its 1977 launch. As it travels farther out and enters a different region of the solar system, it’s occasionally affected by coronal mass ejections — shock waves caused from massive violent eruptions from our sun.

There have been three of these space “tsunamis” since 2012, and the third one — described by NASA on Monday — has helped the space agency confirm something it posited in late 2013: that Voyager is the first Earth craft to travel into interstellar space.

Interstellar space is the area just beyond the reach of what’s known as our heliosphere: an area where the solar wind pushes back the dense plasma of space in a sort of protective bubble. This plasma was ejected into the universe by the death of stars millions of years ago.

The plasma outside the heliosphere is about 40 times denser than the plasma that lies inside it. By using its 37-year-old cosmic ray and plasma wave instruments, Voyager has sent back signals to Earth that prove it has popped through our sun’s protective bubble and is now moving through the thicker plasma. Scientists can tell this is the case because the thicker plasma in interstellar space oscillates at a faster rate than less dense plasma and produces a different frequency when hit by the sun’s shock waves.

“The tsunami wave rings the plasma like a bell,” Ed Stone of the California Institute of Technology , the mission’s project scientist since 1972, said in NASA’s statement. “While the plasma wave instrument lets us measure the frequency of this ringing, the cosmic ray instrument reveals what struck the bell — the shock wave from the sun.”

“Normally, interstellar space is like a quiet lake,” Stone added. “But when our sun has a burst, it sends a shock wave outward that reaches Voyager about a year later. The wave causes the plasma surrounding the spacecraft to sing.”