If John Matese and Daniel Whitmire, astrophysicists working at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, are proven correct, the number of planets in the solar system will again climb to nine (Pluto will remain a dwarf planet) one day. The scientists have theorized that a massive planet — named Tyche — four times the size of Jupiter may inhabit the region of space beyond Pluto’s orbit.
Matese and Whitmire began looking for Tyche in 1999, when they first theorized that planet might be hurtling through space in an area known as the Oort Cloud. According to Discovery News, the Oort Cloud is hypothetical as well and encompasses an enormous volume of space outside the solar system proper, or the heliosphere. It is the area where it is postulated that comets are formed.
It has been a commonly held belief within the scientific community that comets originated in the Oort Cloud soon after the formation of the solar system and that they have been knocked from their extrasolar orbits by gravitational interference from passing stars over millions of years. The two scientists began to suspect that something else, perhaps a massive planet, could be affecting the cometary orbits.
In fact, it was in the analyzation of cometary orbit data that Matese and Whitmire found that many comets had odd orbits. In an article published in “Icarus,” the international journal of solar system studies, the scientists noted that as many as 20 percent too many comets originate from area of space that is unaccounted for in the prevailing theory, the galactic tide theory.
Matese and Whitmire are using NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to find Tyche. They are hoping to find the tell-tale signs of heat emission from the theoretical planet, infrared signs that the planet is cooling, just like the emissions produced by Jupiter.
But finding Tyche is proving a daunting task. Space is vast. It is three-dimensional. And even something as massive as a planet four times the size of Jupiter — which, like Jupiter, is possibly composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, possibly escorted by moons — in an area of interstellar space that extends as far as one light-year out (the theorized size of the Oort Cloud) can still prove elusive.
Ned Wright, who is the principal investigator for the WISE mission, acknowledges that finding Tyche is a daunting task. He told Discovery News that Matese and Whitmire had “extended down” their search parameters to an emission trail the size of Jupiter and ” that is getting a bit hard for WISE to detect at 0.5 light-years from Earth, so we will have to do a careful analysis of lots of faint sources to be sure we haven’t missed something.”
Wright said it could be another couple of years before the analysis was complete.
The first portion of the WISE data will be released in April. John Matese and Daniel Whitmire are hoping their 12-year search will end with eventual success. “If it does, John and I will be doing cartwheels,” Professor Whitmire told London’s The Independent. “And that’s not easy at our age.”
It is believed that Tyche may have been captured from another star, or may be the product of a star that might be Sol’s twin, a binary dubbed Nemesis, which is a theory that has been long dismissed. In Greek mythology Tyche was the good sister of Nemesis. She presided over the fortune, prosperity, and destiny of cities. In short, she was a goddess of good luck — something the two scientists might need in finding the theoretical planet.
Ian O’Neill, “Does A Massive Planet Lurk in the Outer Solar System?” News.Discovery.com
Paul Rodgers, “Up telescope! Search begins for giant new planet,” Independent.co.uk