Welcome to Tri-State Astronomical SocietyTri-State Astronomical Society is a Private Members Only Astronomy Club located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We are a group of astronomers that are interested in promoting Astronomy and teaching the general public the basics of astronomy.
NASA Space Place August 2016
Is there a super-Earth in the Solar System out beyond Neptune?
By Ethan Siegel
When the advent of large telescopes brought us the discoveries of Uranus and then Neptune, they also brought the great hope of a Solar System even richer in terms of large, massive worlds. While the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt were each found to possess a large number of substantial icy-and-rocky worlds, none of them approached even Earth in size or mass, much less the true giant worlds. Meanwhile, all-sky infrared surveys, sensitive to red dwarfs, brown dwarfs and Jupiter-mass gas giants, were unable to detect anything new that was closer than Proxima Centauri. At the same time, Kepler taught us that super-Earths, planets between Earth and Neptune in size, were the galaxy's most common, despite our Solar System having none.
The discovery of Sedna in 2003 turned out to be even more groundbreaking than astronomers realized. Although many Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) were discovered beginning in the 1990s, Sedna had properties all the others didn't. With an extremely eccentric orbit and an aphelion taking it farther from the Sun than any other world known at the time, it represented our first glimpse of the hypothetical Oort cloud: a spherical distribution of bodies ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of A.U. from the Sun. Since the discovery of Sedna, five other long-period, very eccentric TNOs were found prior to 2016 as well. While you'd expect their orbital parameters to be randomly distributed if they occurred by chance, their orbital orientations with respect to the Sun are clustered extremely narrowly: with less than a 1-in-10,000 chance of such an effect appearing randomly.
Whenever we see a new phenomenon with a surprisingly non-random appearance, our scientific intuition calls out for a physical explanation. Astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown provided a compelling possibility earlier this year: perhaps a massive perturbing body very distant from the Sun provided the gravitational "kick" to hurl these objects towards the Sun. A single addition to the Solar System would explain the orbits of all of these long-period TNOs, a planet about 10 times the mass of Earth approximately 200 A.U. from the Sun, referred to as Planet Nine. More Sedna-like TNOs with similarly aligned orbits are predicted, and since January of 2016, another was found, with its orbit aligning perfectly with these predictions.
Ten meter class telescopes like Keck and Subaru, plus NASA's NEOWISE mission, are currently searching for this hypothetical, massive world. If it exists, it invites the question of its origin: did it form along with our Solar System, or was it captured from another star's vicinity much more recently? Regardless, if Batygin and Brown are right and this object is real, our Solar System may contain a super-Earth after all.
A possible super-Earth/mini-Neptune world hundreds of times more distant than Earth is from the Sun. Image credit: R. Hurt / Caltech (IPAC)
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NASA Space Place July 2016
Venus and Jupiter prepare for their close-up this August
By Ethan Siegel
As Earth speeds along in its annual journey around the Sun, it consistently overtakes the slower-orbiting outer planets, while the inner worlds catch up to and pass Earth periodically. Sometime after an outer world—particularly a slow-moving gas giant—gets passed by Earth, it appears to migrate closer and closer to the Sun, eventually appearing to slip behind it from our perspective. If you've been watching Jupiter this year, it's been doing exactly that, moving consistently from east to west and closer to the Sun ever since May 9th.
On the other hand, the inner worlds pass by Earth. They speed away from us, then slip behind the Sun from west to east, re-emerging in Earth's evening skies to the east of the Sun. Of all the planets visible from Earth, the two brightest are Venus and Jupiter, which experience a conjunction from our perspective only about once per year. Normally, Venus and Jupiter will appear separated by approximately 0.5º to 3º at closest approach. This is due to the fact that the Solar System's planets don't all orbit in the same perfect, two-dimensional plane.
But this summer, as Venus emerges from behind the Sun and begins catching up to Earth, Jupiter falls back toward the Sun, from Earth's perspective, at the same time. On August 27th, all three planets—Earth, Venus and Jupiter—will make nearly a perfectly straight line.
As a result, Venus and Jupiter, at 9:48 PM Universal time, will appear separated by only 4 arc-minutes, the closest conjunction of naked eye planets since the Venus/Saturn conjunction in 2006. Seen right next to one another, it's startling how much brighter Venus appears than Jupiter; at magnitude -3.80, Venus appears some eight times brighter than Jupiter, which is at magnitude -1.53.
Look to the western skies immediately after sunset on August 27th, and the two brightest planets of all—brighter than all the stars—will make a dazzling duo in the twilight sky. As soon as the sun is below the horizon, the pair will be about two fists (at arm’s length) to the left of the sun’s disappearance and about one fist above a flat horizon. You may need binoculars to find them initially and to separate them. Through a telescope, a large, gibbous Venus will appear no more distant from Jupiter than Callisto, its farthest Galilean satellite.
As a bonus, Mercury is nearby as well. At just 5º below and left of the Venus/Jupiter pair, Mercury achieved a distant conjunction with Venus less than 24 hours prior. In 2065, Venus will actually occult Jupiter, passing in front of the planet's disk. Until then, the only comparably close conjunctions between these two worlds occur in 2039 and 2056, meaning this one is worth some special effort—including traveling to get clear skies and a good horizon—to see!
Image credit: E. Siegel, created with Stellarium, of a small section of the western skies as they will appear this August 27th just after sunset from the United States, with Venus and Jupiter separated by less than 6 arc-minutes as shown. Inset shows Venus and Jupiter as they'll appear through a very good amateur telescope, in the same field of view.
To teach kids more about Venus and Jupiter, visit the NASA Space Place webpages titled “All About Venus” [http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/all-about-venus/en/] and “All About Jupiter” [http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/all-about-jupiter/en/].