The mystery of Planet X deepens

Abigail Beall — Mail Online March 30, 2016

As evidence for a ninth planet in our solar system grows, a 30-year old theory about mass extinctions on Earth is resurfacing.

Evidence was discovered at the beginning of this year for the mysterious ‘Planet Nine’, and since then scientists have been looking for signs that could confirm its existence.

But the mystery of this planet has now deepened after an astrophysicist in the US has claimed this planet could have provoked comet showers that caused mass extinctions on Earth.

Evidence was discovered at the beginning of this year for a mysterious 'Planet Nine' (artist's impression shown), and since then it has had scientists looking for signs that could confirm its existence. As evidence for a ninth planet in our solar system grows, a 30-year old theory about mass extinctions on Earth is resurfacing.

Evidence was discovered at the beginning of this year for a mysterious ‘Planet Nine’ (artist’s impression shown), and since then it has had scientists looking for signs that could confirm its existence. As evidence for a ninth planet in our solar system grows, a 30-year old theory about mass extinctions on Earth is resurfacing.

Yesterday, astronomer Mike Brown of Caltech, one of the scientists behind the initial announcement of the so-called ‘Planet Nine’, revealed he had found further evidence to support it.

This giant hidden planet is thought to sit on the edge of our solar system and is 10 times more massive than the Earth, gaseous, and similar to Uranus or Neptune.

Now, Dr Daniel Whitmire, a retired professor of astrophysics working at the University of Arkansas Department of Mathematical Sciences has suggested the planet triggers comet showers.

These comet showers could be powerful enough to travel towards Earth’s orbit and ultimately strike the planet and cause mass extinctions.

Dr Whitmire and his colleague John Matese first published research on the connection between Planet X and mass extinctions in the journal Nature in 1985 while working at the University of Louisiana.

At the time there were three explanations proposed to explain the regular comet showers.

These included the presence of a mystery planet on the outskirts of our solar system, dubbed Planet X, the existence of a sister star to the sun, and vertical oscillations of the sun as it orbits the galaxy.

In 1985, an additional planet in the solar system would have taken the total number of planets to 10, as Pluto was still classified as a planet until 2006 – X is 10 in Roman numerals.

The last two ideas have subsequently been ruled out as inconsistent with the paleontological record.

Only Planet X remains as a viable theory, and it is now gaining renewed attention, the university explained.

Dr Whitmire and Matese’s theory is that as Planet X orbits the sun, its tilted orbit slowly rotates and Planet X passes through the Kuiper belt of comets every 27 million years. This orbit causes comets to be knocked into the inner solar system.

Professor Mike Brown and the researchers at Caltech recently inferred a mysterious planet’s existence based on orbital anomalies seen in objects in the Kuiper Belt, a disc-shaped region of comets and other larger bodies beyond Neptune. They have dubbed this planet Planet Nine.

But there is a lot of mystery surrounding additional planets in our solar system and whether the two theoretical planets are the same is up for discussion.

These comet showers could be powerful enough to travel towards Earth’s orbit and ultimately strike the planet and cause mass extinctions.

Dr Whitmire and his colleague John Matese first published research on the connection between Planet X and mass extinctions in the journal Nature in 1985 while working at the University of Louisiana.

At the time there were three explanations proposed to explain the regular comet showers.

These included the presence of a mystery planet on the outskirts of our solar system, dubbed Planet X, the existence of a sister star to the sun, and vertical oscillations of the sun as it orbits the galaxy.

In 1985, an additional planet in the solar system would have taken the total number of planets to 10, as Pluto was still classified as a planet until 2006 – X is 10 in Roman numerals.

The last two ideas have subsequently been ruled out as inconsistent with the paleontological record.

Only Planet X remains as a viable theory, and it is now gaining renewed attention, the university explained.

Dr Whitmire and Matese’s theory is that as Planet X orbits the sun, its tilted orbit slowly rotates and Planet X passes through the Kuiper belt of comets every 27 million years. This orbit causes comets to be knocked into the inner solar system.

Professor Mike Brown and the researchers at Caltech recently inferred a mysterious planet’s existence based on orbital anomalies seen in objects in the Kuiper Belt, a disc-shaped region of comets and other larger bodies beyond Neptune. They have dubbed this planet Planet Nine.

But there is a lot of mystery surrounding additional planets in our solar system and whether the two theoretical planets are the same is up for discussion.

‘Whitmire has been speculating for decades about a very distant very massive planet pushing comets around. It has to have an orbital period of something like 27 million years,’ Professor Brown told MailOnline.

‘While that idea may or may not make sense, it definitely has nothing to do with Planet Nine, which is much closer to the sun and thus “only” takes 15,000 years to go around. The evidence for Planet Nine says nothing about whether or not there is a more distant Planet X.’

But Dr Whitmire said the new findings did not rule out a planet like he described in his original paper.

‘I feel very positive about the new evidence though the current estimates are not completely consistent with our Planet X model,’ Dr Whitmire told MailOnline.

‘However it may be possible that a smaller closer planet could also explain the anomalies in the orbits of the Kuiper belt objects since there are uncertainties in their estimates.’

‘The effect of a planet depends on both its mass and distance so a closer, less massive planet can produce similar gravitational effects. The Planet Nine authors acknowledge that other combinations of mass and distance can’t yet be ruled out.’

‘Two of the properties of Planet Nine, its orbital inclination (tilt) and eccentricity (elongation), are very consistent with our Planet X model requirements,’ Dr Whitmire told MailOnline.

‘Alternatively, even assuming their estimates are exactly correct there could be two trans-Neptunian planets as others have suggested.’

The dislodged comets not only smash into the Earth, they also disintegrate in the inner solar system as they get nearer to the sun, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth.

Scientists have been looking for Planet X for 100 years.

While no conclusive evidence of its existence has emerged so far, a number of researchers have undertaken their own studies on the possible planet.

In 1985, the paleontological record supported the idea of regular comet showers dating back 250 million years.

Newer research shows evidence of such events dating as far back as 500 million years.

Whitmire and Matese said the planet would be between one and five times the mass of Earth, and about 100 times more distant from the sun, much smaller numbers than Caltech’s estimates.

Whitmire added that what’s really exciting is the possibility that a distant planet may have had a significant influence on the evolution of life on Earth.

‘I’ve been part of this story for 30 years,’ he said. ‘If there is ever a final answer I’d love to write a book about it.’

Were dinosaurs wiped out by meteor showers triggered by Planet X?

Were dinosaurs wiped out by meteor showers triggered by Planet X?

FIVE GREAT EXTINCTION EVENTS

Five times, a vast majority of the world’s life has been snuffed out in what have been called mass extinctions, often associated with giant meteor strikes.

End-Ordovician mass extinction

The first of the traditional big five extinction events, around 440 million years ago, was probably the second most severe. Virtually all life was in the sea at the time and around 85% of these species vanished.

Late Devonian mass extinction

About 375-359 million years ago, major environmental changes caused a drawn-out extinction event that wiped out major fish groups and stopped new coral reefs forming for 100 million years.

End-Permian mass extinction (the Great Dying)

The largest extinction event and the one that affected the Earth’s ecology most profoundly took place 252 million years ago. As much as 97% of species that leave a fossil record disappeared forever.

End-Triassic mass extinction

Dinosaurs first appeared in the Early Triassic, but large amphibians and mammal-like reptiles were the dominant land animals. The rapid mass extinction that occurred 201 million years ago changed that.

End-Cretaceous mass extinction

An asteroid slammed down on Earth 65 million years ago, and is often blamed for ending the reign of the dinosaurs.

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