Jul 7, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: The race to find Planet X heats up

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Teams of scientists are vying to be the first to spot a large, hypothetical planet that might be lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system.

Why it matters: Astronomers have found thousands of planets orbiting other stars, but the hunt for this possible planet orbiting our own Sun — called Planet X or Planet 9 by some — is showing just how little we know about our solar system.

What's happening: Teams of scientists are racing to find the possible planet using telescopes trained on distant parts of the solar system before a more powerful telescope comes online in the coming years.

  • They’ve lost months of observation time due to the coronavirus pandemic, as many observatories have been shut down.
  • Astronomers hope to start observing again, at least remotely, in the coming months in order to beat a new telescope and potentially be first to spot the hypothetical planet.
  • "It's a friendly competition. I mean, it's a race. It's something that you want to find. It's a pretty amazing thing," astronomer Scott Sheppard told me.

The ground-based Rubin Observatory is expected to make its first science observations by next year and reach full operation in 2022.

  • It will then likely be able to quickly figure out whether or not Planet X is out there thanks to its sensitivity to objects in the distant solar system.
  • "The timescale for us or for anybody else really to find it is closing because once LSST [the Rubin Observatory] comes online, it's going to be the new game — perhaps the only game — in town," astronomer Konstantin Batygin, one of the first to propose the existence of Planet X, told me.

Details: The existence of Planet X could help explain some of the odd orbits seen among objects in the Kuiper Belt, far past Pluto.

  • Scientists who think Planet X is out there expect it's about five to 10 times Earth's mass and orbits the Sun once every 10,000 to 20,000 Earth years.
  • Even though it's thought to be relatively large, the planet would be particularly difficult to see because of its extreme distance from Earth, potentially small size and possibly dark color, making it harder to see any light reflected off of it.
  • The possibility of Planet X was boosted in 2015 when researchers produced new models and simulations showing the world could be out there.

The intrigue: Everyone wants to be first to find proof-positive of the new planet using their own techniques and telescope parameters, but the best way to actually find the world is through collaboration, a fact the scientists hunting for it know all too well.

  • "There is an understanding — or at least I hope — there is an understanding that collectively we will get there faster if we all do the work," Batygin said.

Yes, but: It's not a sure thing that Planet X is out there at all.

  • Theoretical research has been mounting that may explain the odd orbits on the edge of the solar system without the need for an extra, large planet orbiting far from the Sun.
  • New data suggests the samples of observations being used to claim Planet X may be out there are actually biased in part due to the small number of objects in the distant reaches of the solar system detected so far.
  • "I would be delighted if Planet Nine existed. That would be so cool," physicist Samantha Lawler told me. "But I don't think the evidence is there."
2. Amazon and the final frontier

Earth as seen from orbit. Photo: NASA

Amazon Web Services announced last week it is forming a business division focused on helping government and commercial space entities become more agile and flexible by making use of the cloud.

The big picture: The new division — called the Aerospace and Satellite Solutions business segment — further solidifies Amazon's push into the space sector.

What's happening: AWS' Aerospace and Satellite Solutions will work with space companies to find more efficient ways of going about their everyday work.

  • For space companies, cloud services could allow for shortcuts in analyzing the extreme quantities of data beamed back from space each day.
  • AWS hopes the new division will help companies and governments move faster when it comes to finding new ways to use space-based assets and applications using machine learning and other tools.
  • "The Earth and space-based systems that we build now will inform nearly every decision we make in the years to come," Teresa Carlson, AWS vice president, said during a keynote address.
  • Companies like Capella Space, Maxar and Lockheed Martin are partnering with AWS.

Yes, but: Amazon isn't alone in trying to capture this market in the space industry.

  • Microsoft is also courting space companies looking to use cloud-based services.
  • Microsoft Azure beat out Amazon last year for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract.

The big picture: In recent years, Amazon has launched AWS' Ground Station, which focuses on providing space companies with ground station bandwidth to bring data back from orbit and analyze it quickly.

  • Amazon is also developing Project Kuiper, a constellation of internet-beaming satellites expected to potentially rival SpaceX's Starlink.
3. The core of a dead planet

Artist's impression of an exoplanet. Photo: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

For the first time, scientists have found the core of a dead planet orbiting a star 730 light-years from Earth.

Why it matters: Our solar system only has a few types of planets by comparison to the diversity of worlds out there orbiting other stars. Finding this bizarre world adds to that tapestry — and opens up new avenues for discovery.

Details: A study about the newfound planet — named TOI 849 b — reveals the odd, Neptune-sized world orbits its star once every 18 hours and its surface temperature clocks in at an extreme 2,732°F.

  • "The planet is strangely close to its star, considering its mass," David Armstrong, one of the authors of the new Nature study said in a statement.
  • The planet's strange composition is what gave scientists the hint that the world is likely the core of what could have been a much larger gas giant.
  • The authors of the study found that TOI 849 b has only a small amount of hydrogen and helium and it's incredibly dense at 40 times heavier than the Earth with a radius 3.4 times that of our planet.
  • According to current models of planetary formation, a planet that massive would have sucked up much more helium and hydrogen than is present now, the study says.

The intrigue: The scientists are confident this world is a dead core of a planet, but they're less sure about how it came to be.

  • The paper's authors suggest the planet may have once been like Jupiter but lost its atmosphere through a possible collision with another world or tidal forces that disrupted the planet due to its close proximity to its star.
  • It's also possible at least some of the planet's atmosphere evaporated because of its close-in orbit.
  • The alien world might also represent a "failed" gas planet where the gas that usually would have been slurped up by the core wasn't available during planet formation.
4. Out of this world reading list

Mars as seen by Curiosity. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rocket Lab Electron launch fails (Jeff Foust, Space News)

Some exoplanets may be covered in weird water that’s between liquid and gas (Maria Temming, ScienceNews)

There's more metal on the Moon than we thought (Elizabeth Howell, Space.com)

The Curiosity rover starts its summer road trip on Mars (Mariella Moon, Engadget)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A feathery spiral galaxy

Photo: ESA/Hubble/NASA

A quiet spiral galaxy shines 67 million light-years from Earth in this photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

  • The galaxy, named NGC 2775, owes its unique look to a large and empty bulge at its center, where gas has been depleted as fuel for stars.
  • "The overall feather-like spiral patterns of the arms are then formed by shearing of the gas clouds as the galaxy rotates," the European Space Agency said in a statement. "The spiral nature of flocculents stands in contrast to the grand design spirals, which have prominent, well defined-spiral arms."
Miriam Kramer

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