Science

An Earth-sized planet hidden beyond Neptune?

Based on a series of simulations aimed at studying the formation of our solar system, astronomers suggest that there may be another planet in orbit, located beyond Neptune. This planet, whose size should approximate that of Earth or Mars, would have been “pushed” to the confines of our system by the gas giants that today constitute the outer solar system.

This announcement recalls the hypothetical “new planet”, whose supposed existence would have been deduced from the disturbances observed at the level of the orbit of several trans-Neptunian objects. In 2016, astronomers from the California Institute of Technology claimed, in fact, to have gathered evidence for the presence of a giant planet (with a mass about 10 times that of Earth), orbiting the Sun about 20 times farther than Neptune.

This is not such a new planet here. However, the authors of this new study published in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics claim that simulations that aim to track the evolution of the solar system cannot yet explain its current configuration due to a lack of information. These missing data could imply another planet, which once circled the Sun, at distances comparable to those of the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune).

A rare planetary configuration

Scientists are constantly studying our solar system, to understand how the planets arose, but also how they got to the different positions they occupy today.

Our solar system is composed (in increasing order of distance from the Sun) of four rocky inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars), an asteroid belt and four gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune), which constitute the external system. Beyond Neptune, there are dwarf planets, such as Pluto, located in the Kuiper belt, or Eris, in addition to other objects such as comets.

Thanks to discoveries made in recent decades, it now appears that our system is not like most star systems in the galaxy. Only 10 to 15% of star systems would adopt a configuration similar to ours, characterized by the presence of gas giants outside.

So for Brett Gladman and Kathryn Volk, this setup doesn’t make sense. They consider it unlikely that our solar system evolved creating four gas giants, and then only dwarf planets in the outer zone. According to them, there should be planets of other sizes, as suggested by their simulations. In particular, it turns out that the presence of another planet the size of Earth or Mars in the outer solar system, perhaps between two of the gas giants, produces a more accurate computer model of the development of our solar system.

Then, under the effect of the gravitational interactions of the giants, this planet would have been thrown further into space, like many trans-Neptunian objects and dwarf planets that formed relatively close to the Sun and were repelled by the continuation towards the cold periphery of the system. . According to their calculations, the probability of the presence of such a planet in the Kuiper Belt region is at least 50%.

Probable detection during future observations

Several other teams of experts come to the same conclusions as Gladman and Volk. Kedron Silsbee of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and Scott Tremaine of the Institute for Advanced Study report similar results. According to their simulations, the outer planets weren’t in their original orbits, and sometimes they weren’t in the same order; They suggest that the gas giants may have had additional help getting to their current positions.

Therefore, another large object in the inner solar system could have been pushed to the periphery of the solar system by the gas giants, or it could have been pushed out entirely. “Our simulations revealed that in about half of the cases, all the Mars-scale planets in the outer solar system were ejected into interstellar space,” says Tremaine. In the remaining half, the planet was in an orbit similar to that of the Kuiper Belt object population.

“I agree that a Mars-class planet was likely there initially, but the question is whether it survived and do we have evidence for it,” said David Nesvorny, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. If such a planet exists on the outer edges of the solar system, new telescopes under construction, such as the one at the Vera-C.-Rubin Observatory in Chile, can detect it and thus confirm this theory.

Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, B. Gladman et K. Volk

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