CAPTIONS: A predicted consequence of Planet 9 is that a second set of confined objects should also exist. These objects are forced into positions at right angles to Planet 9 and into orbits perpendicular to the plane of the solar system. Five known objects (blue) fit this prediction precisely. (NASA) Caltech professor Mike Brown and assistant professor Konstanin Batygin. (Photo: Lance Hayashida/Caltech)
On January 20, 2016, Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown, at the California Institute of Technology, announced calculation-based evidence of a massive ninth planet in our solar system. They’ve dubbed the object “Planet Nine.” Batygin and Brown have postulated the planet’s existence through mathematical modeling and computer simulations, but the newest member of the solar system has not yet been observed directly. Batygin was cautious in interpreting the results saying, “Until Planet Nine is caught on camera it does not count as being real. All we have now is an echo.”
But what an echo. Planet Nine would be a super-Earth with an estimated mass of about ten times that of Earth and a diameter two to four times larger. Brown speculates that the predicted planet is most likely similar in composition and size to Uranus and Neptune, with a mixture of rock and ice, and a small envelope of gas. They suggest it may be a primordial giant planet core that was ejected from its original orbit during the nebular epoch of the solar system’s evolution. Planet Nine is hypothesized to follow a highly elliptical orbit around the Sun, about twenty times the distance from Neptune to the Sun, with an orbital period of 10,000–20,000 years. They expect the aphelion, or farthest point from the Sun, would be in the general direction of Orion and Taurus, while the perihelion, or nearest point to the Sun, would be in the general direction of Libra and the southerly areas of Serpens Caput and Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer.
“This would be a real ninth planet,” said Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy. “There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system.” Brown is well known for his significant role in the demotion of Pluto. “Those who are mad that Pluto is no longer a planet can be thrilled that there is a real planet still out there to be found,” he remarked.
Batygin and Brown described their work in the January 2016 issue of The Astronomical Journal, showing how Planet Nine helps to explain a number of mysterious features of the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy objects and debris beyond Neptune. “Although we were initially quite skeptical, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we became increasingly convinced that this planet is out there,” said Batygin, who is an assistant professor of planetary science and was on the 2015 Forbes list of thirty scientists under thirty who are changing the world.
In 2014, Chad Trujillo, a former postdoc of Brown, and his colleague Scott Sheppard, published a paper noting that thirteen of the most distant objects in the Kuiper Belt have similar obscure orbital features. They suggested the presence of a small planet to explain the similarities. At the time, Brown thought the planet solution was unlikely, but he was intrigued. He took the problem down the hall to Batygin, and the two began an eighteen-month collaboration to investigate the distant objects. Batygin and Brown realized that the six most distant objects from Trujillo and Sheppard’s original collection all follow elliptical orbits that point in the same direction in physical space. That is surprising because the outermost points of their orbits move around the solar system, traveling at different rates.
The orbits of the six objects are also all tilted in the same way—pointing about thirty degrees downward in the same direction relative to the plane of the eight known planets. The probability of that occurring is about 0.007 percent. “It shouldn’t happen randomly, so we thought something else must be shaping these orbits,” Brown said. After a year-and-a-half of work, Batygin and Brown noticed that if they ran their simulations with a massive planet in an orbit where the planet’s closest approach to the Sun was 180 degrees across from the perihelion of all the other objects and known planets—the distant Kuiper Belt objects in the simulation assumed the alignment that is actually observed.
The researchers were most amazed that their simulations predicted objects in the Kuiper Belt on orbits inclined perpendicularly to the plane of the planets. Batygin kept finding evidence for these in his simulations and took them to Brown. “Suddenly I realized there are objects like that,” recalled Brown. In the last three years, observers have identified four objects tracing orbits roughly along one perpendicular line from Neptune and one object along another. “We plotted the positions of those objects and their orbits, and they matched the simulations exactly,” said Brown. “When we found that, my jaw sort of hit the floor.”
Batygin explained that this ninth planet, which at first seems like such an oddball to us, would actually make our solar system similar to other planetary systems that astronomers are finding around many other stars. Most planets around other sun-like stars have no single orbital range—some orbit extremely close to their host stars while others follow exceptionally distant orbits. And, the most common planets around other stars range between one and ten Earth-masses. “One of the most startling discoveries about other planetary systems has been that the most common type of planet has a mass between that of Earth and that of Neptune,” Batygin said. “Until now, we’ve thought that the solar system was lacking this most common type of planet.”
Planet Nine is also Planet X, which is a term used by astronomers to describe an unidentified planet in the outer solar system. Following the discovery of Neptune in 1846, there was considerable speculation that another planet might exist beyond its orbit. The search began in the mid-nineteenth century and culminated at the start of the twentieth with Percival Lowell’s quest. Lowell proposed the Planet X hypothesis to explain apparent discrepancies in the orbits of the giant planets, particularly Uranus and Neptune. He speculated that the gravity of a large unseen ninth planet could have perturbed Uranus enough to account for the irregularities. Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930 appeared to validate Lowell’s hypothesis, and Pluto was officially, although temporarily, named the ninth planet. (For more on the Planet X hypothesis, see Martin Ruggles’ article in this issue on page 23.)
I have written about dark matter (Atlantis Rising #116), which is a hypothetical kind of matter that can’t be seen with telescopes and neither emits nor absorbs light or any other electromagnetic radiation at any significant level. It doesn’t interact with “ordinary” matter and is completely invisible to light. Dark matter has not been detected directly, making it one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics. Like Planet Nine, dark matter’s existence and properties have been inferred from its gravitational effects on visible matter, radiation, and on the large-scale structure of the universe.
I also examined the Nemesis, or Tyche, theory (Atlantis Rising #90), a hypothesis proposed by two different teams of astronomers. This theory suggests that our Sun may have a binary companion. Scientists believe this object may be a star—either a Brown Dwarf or a Red Dwarf. The difference between the Planet Nine premise and the Nemesis or Tyche hypothesis, is that the binary star would be in a highly elliptic orbit with the Sun, and Planet Nine is orbiting around the Sun but also in a highly inclined elliptical orbit.
In astrological terms, planets are said to “rule” certain signs—a terminology that is confusing and unfortunate. The idea is that a particular planet has more power when placed in a certain astrological sign. For example, Mars is more powerful in Aries, and the Moon is more powerful in Cancer. Before the discovery of Uranus and Neptune, most planets ruled two signs. As these relationships have evolved over time, Venus and Mercury still rule two signs each. Venus is said to rule Taurus and Libra, and Mercury is said to rule Gemini and Virgo.
If there are, indeed, two more objects with significant astrological roles to play in our solar system, how might we imagine their relationships with the signs that now share planetary rulers? If Planet Nine and a binary companion are visually sited, astrologers will need to make radical shifts in awareness in terms of the correspondence between planets and signs.
I have argued elsewhere (Atlantis Rising #86) that dwarf planet Ceres (Greek Demeter) has a strong mythical connection to the sign of Virgo. I suggested that Ceres, goddess of grain and planting cycles, holds space in a sort of quantum manner, along within the larger Asteroid Belt, and functions as the ruler of Virgo, sign of the harvest. A troubling question remains: whether or not a “dwarf” planet is entitled to “rule.” There may be a mechanism, like an energetic frequency resonance that we don’t yet understand, that explains the dynamic relationship of planets with certain signs. Clearly, astrology is in need of re-visioning.
That brings us to Pluto, which used to be a planet but is now a dwarf like Ceres. Pluto orbits with tens of thousands of other bodies in the Kuiper Belt. Could Pluto’s dwarf planet status bring its role as ruler of Scorpio into question? Perhaps Pluto is also a placeholder for a larger energy or frequency? If a binary companion to our Sun is eventually confirmed, especially if it turns out to be a Brown Dwarf, there is a compelling symbolic connection between the deep mysteries of Scorpio, sign of generation and regeneration, and a dark star that is a hidden companion to our Sun.
My intuition, albeit speculative, suggests that Planet Nine, with its long orbit that moves through ages, is aptly represented by the myth of the goddess of justice, Astraea. Planet Nine might be the perfect ruler of Libra—the sign symbolized by the scales of justice. It’s tempting to hope that Planet Nine will first be spotted in Libra. In myth, Astraea, celestial virgin and ancient goddess of justice, was the last of the immortals to live with humans during the Golden Age. As Ovid lamented in the beginning quote, Astraea abandoned humanity during the evil Iron Age. Fleeing to the stars from humanity’s growing wickedness, she ascended to heaven in the region of Virgo and Libra. Astraea’s myth says she will return to Earth when people once again seek her wisdom.
Could the “echo” we are now hearing from Planet Nine herald the mythic return of an ancient goddess, bringing a utopian Golden Age, of which she is ambassador? Her long orbit, which moves through multiple ages, is a fitting corollary to the process of her advent, departure, and cyclical return that appears as the concept of the Hindu Yugas and Greek and Roman ages.
Brown and other colleagues have already begun searching for Planet Nine. Only the planet’s rough orbit is known, not the precise location in its elliptical path. If the planet happens to be close to its perihelion, Brown says astronomers should be able to spot it in images captured by previous surveys. If it is in the most distant part of its orbit, the world’s largest telescopes—such as the twin 10-meter telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Subaru Telescope, all on Mauna Kea in Hawaii—will be needed. If Planet Nine is located anywhere in between, many telescopes might see it.
In our time, science is allowing us to detect the presence of objects and energy by their influence rather than direct visible evidence. This is a fundamental revolution in a paradigm where “seeing is believing” has been paramount. Is it really such a stretch to imagine that a similar mechanism of unseen energies that have profound effects may be at work in astrology? It’s always wise to keep an open mind.
May/June 2016 – #117