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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 telescopes have been shut down because of restrictions placed on observatories in various parts of the world to contain the pandemic.
  • Astronomers hope to start observing again, at least remotely, in the coming months in order to beat out a new telescope and potentially be first to spot the theoretical 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 Axios.

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 Axios.

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 5 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 Axios. "But I don't think the evidence is there."

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Sep 15, 2020 - Science

What's next for the big Venus discovery

Venus as seen by the Galileo spacecraft in 1990. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists still have a long way to go before they can say definitively what’s creating the phosphine — a possible signature of life — detected on Venus.

The big picture: Science is an iterative process, and this discovery is no exception.

1 hour ago - Health

Boris Johnson announces month-long COVID-19 lockdown in U.K.

Prime Minsiter Boris Johnson. Photo: NurPhoto / Getty Images

A new national lockdown will be imposed in the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Saturday, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country topped 1 million.

Details: Starting Thursday, people in England must stay at home, and bars and restaurants will close, except for takeout and deliveries. All non-essential retail will also be shuttered. Different households will be banned from mixing indoors. International travel, unless for business purposes, will be banned. The new measures will last through at least December 2.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

The massive early vote

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Early voting in the 2020 election across the U.S. on Saturday had already reached 65.5% of 2016's total turnout, according to state data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project.

Why it matters: The coronavirus pandemic and its resultant social-distancing measures prompted a massive uptick in both mail-in ballots and early voting nationwide, setting up an unprecedented and potentially tumultuous count in the hours and days after the polls close on Nov. 3.