It Came From Planet Nine

There be dragons out there, waaaaay out there, in the dark, off the edge of the map.

Or rather, a virtuoso combination of observation and mathematical modeling has led to an exciting, in some ways joyously old-school prediction. Orbital oddities identified in a handful of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) were subjected to the same kind of inquiry that allowed 19th century astronomers to infer Neptune from Uranus’s behavior, in what was widely understood to be a triumph of Isaac Newton’s “System of the World.”


The new analysis, by two Caltech astronomers, theoretician Konstantin Batygin and the observer and Slayer-of-Pluto Michael Brown, has led to a broad outline of what to expect — a ~10 Earth mass planet travelling a very eccentric orbit that never comes closer to the sun than ~250 Earth-Sun distances, a unit of measure known as the Astronomical Unit.

I’m sure many of you saw the news about this last week.  Alexandra Witze in Nature had a  good write-up, as did Alan Burdick in The New Yorker.  (For those (quite a few) on the blog with the urge to read the original Batygin-Brown paper — go here.)

I couldn’t be more excited by the news.  I sometimes forget what an extraordinary run of solar system exploration I’ve been privileged to witness.  The variety we’ve found exists in our near-environment has leapt unbelievably, just in the last two or  three decades, and the richness and complexity of our own solar system is allowing us to make more sense of the process of planet and planetary system formation as more and more data emerges about exo-systems.

But for all that excitement, there’s something special about a new major planet.  As I write in The Hunt for Vulcan [Shameless Plug Here], the idea of a whole new world joining the neighborhood had enormous romantic power in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  Arguably, given our present immersion in the imagined reality of multiple worlds, that romance cuts deeper still today.

But. ButButButButBut….it’s important to remember that a prediction, no matter how well supported, how seemingly necessary, isn’t the same thing as proof, as the discovery itself.  That’s what I tried to say in this essay on the subject.  A sample:

In 1846, the discovery of Neptune turned Le Verrier into a celebrity; for a time, he was the most famous man of science in the world. He went on an international tour and seized the moment to rise to the top of power in the highly contentious and hierarchical world of French astronomy. Batygin and Brown are taking a much more measured tack with Planet Nineand for good reason.  “We felt quite cautious about making the statement we made,” Batygin says.  Why such concern? Because, he says, “immediately after the detection of Neptune spurious claims of planets in outer solar system began to surface. We didn’t want to be another red herring.”

It wasn’t just the distant reaches of the solar system that tripped people up: 


The only problem being, of course, that Vulcan was never there.

I’m much more hopeful for Batygin and Brown’s Planet Nine, but hopeful don’t pay the rent — or, as Batygin told me:

“If Newton is right, then I think we’re in pretty good shape,” says Batyagin. “We’re after a real physical effect that needs explanation. The dynamics of our model are persuasive.” And yet, he adds, that’s not enough. “Until Planet Nine is caught on camera it does not count as being real. All we have now is an echo.”

There’s a surfeit of terrestrial crazy to weigh us down.  It’s a relief, I find, to look up and out, and contemplate the ordered mysteries that so thoroughly dwarf Comrade Trump’s Yuuuuuggggge self conceit.

Images:  William Blake, Isaac Newton1795

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomerc. 1668

71 replies
  1. 1
    Mnemosyne says:

    Popular related Facebook meme: David Bowie died and a new planet was discovered the same week. Coincidence?

    (Yeah, okay, it was a total coincidence, but a very apropos one given Bowie’s music and film work about space oddities and aliens falling to earth.)

  2. 2
    Cermet says:

    If this monster (ten Earth masses) does exist, it will really prove that a lot can be still out there and not be seen … wait, that’s dark matter …similar method, though. So, if they find this new planet then certainly Newton’s law triumph yet again (take that General Relativity!)

  3. 3
    Granite says:

    The time has come.

    I am backing Donald J. Trump for POTUS.

    We desperately need someone to keep Cruz out and he is he only one that can do it. Cruz would mean the en of the GOP. We can negotiate with Trump, we can deal with him, even control him in the end while Cruz is a loose cannon.

    What about Rubio you ask? Rubio has shown no ability to win the nominaton. He’s weak sauce.

    With Jeb drowning, with Christie having bridgegate, with Kasich being a RINO, there’s only one choice left: Trump.

    He will beat Hillary like a rented fucking mule, and then we will tell him what to do.

    The party decides…

  4. 4
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Granite: Brink’s trucks? Come on, we like the oldies here.

  5. 5
    Granite says:

    @Gin & Tonic:

    Trump is self-funded, but soon he’s going to get the backing of the big donors.

    The mantra among the GOP establishment was once “find the mainstream candidate”, now the mantra is “must stop Cruz”. We can’t let the Glenn Beck/gold bug/canned food wing take over the party.

  6. 6
    debbie says:

    @Gin & Tonic:

    I can’t believe s/he is giving up on Jeb!.

  7. 7
    Granite says:


    We must stop Cruz. He’s a loose canon who doesn’t play by the rules. We can show Trump the true nature of the GOP. Cruz can never understand it.

  8. 8
    Mnemosyne says:


    Remember the Republican motto, kids: it doesn’t matter what you do to win, as long as you can claim you won.

  9. 9
    Schlemazel says:

    You and another great mind, John Rocker:

    You picked a good nym though, mind like a rock

  10. 10
    goblue72 says:

    We know what this mystery planet is. I just hope we are ready for the invasion when it comes.

  11. 11
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Granite: Nice to see your man defending Putin in the Litvinenko murder. I mean, if he can shoot somebody on 5th Avenue, why shouldn’t Vlad poison somebody in London? Same, same, am I right?

  12. 12
    pat says:

    I’ll never forget listening to NPR when Pluto lost its status as a planet. The comment was: What’s next, Rhode Island?

    Seriously this is great news. Maybe it can hold all of us. Stephen Hawking seems to think we should move on when we have totally destroyed this planet.

  13. 13
    Granite says:


    Granite is for the Granite State–New Hampshire.

    Trump is the future. He’s going to grind Hillary into fucking dust. He can run against “PC language”, “SJWs”, “anti-Americanism” , and once he gets into office he’s going to sign whatever the Republicans in Congress put on h is desk.

    Trump will be our puppet.

  14. 14
    Schlemazel says:

    By the Republicans own words, Trump will get beaten but we can claim he is an anomaly, Cruz will get beaten and it will tear the GOP apart. I’m pulling for the Crudz. I’d almost donate to the Canadian crack-pot but am saving my ammo for Hil/Bern.

  15. 15
    Granite says:

    @Gin & Tonic:

    We can deal with Putin and give him a reasonable sphere of influence. Trump knows how to make deals.

    He’s a son of a bitch just like Putin, but as the saying goes he will be OUR son of a bitch.

    Who do you want dealing with Putin: Hillary, Bernie, or Trump?

  16. 16
    Granite says:


    Trump will win. He’s utterly unstoppable. Don’t you see where this is headed? Nobody can stop him. Nobody.

  17. 17
    goblue72 says:

    @Granite: He’s gonna be a laughingstock. He’s got a rap sheet a mile long of insanity. And he’s lazy. You gotta be seriously lazy to start off with kind of money he had and wind up doing no better than a passively invested stock index fund.

    Newsflash – America is not electing to President a fat tub of lard with a bad combover and a spray tan.

    But you know that already.

  18. 18
    chopper says:


    well you’ve been right about everything so far. trump it is!

  19. 19
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Granite: “Trump has his fortune, but Jeb has a fundraising base as bottomless than a bread basket at the Olive Garden.”

  20. 20
    goblue72 says:

    @Granite: Stupid question. In the grand scheme of things, Putin is irrelevant. Russia’s role on the grand stage of international affairs ended in the late 20th century.

  21. 21
    Schlemazel says:

    Oh Dougie, you really got me there for a minute! You really had the insanity finely tuned but you took it one step too far with that last line. Of all the things the Dumpster Fire is the GOPs puppet aint one of them and nobody is stupid or crazy enough to think that.

    But the Granite thing was a bit of genius, rocks for brains would have been too obvious if just as accurate.

  22. 22
    chopper says:


    We must stop Cruz. He’s a loose canon who doesn’t play by the rules.

    given your bloody-bill track record of being wrong about every single goddamn thing this means cruz is going to end up the GOP nominee. that’s just great.

  23. 23
    pat says:


    That is some major delusion there. I’d go back on the meds if I were you.

  24. 24
    Granite says:


    He’s demolished everyone he’s come in contact with. The people will buy it. Yesterday I was in the grocery store after the storm, I heard people saying things like “He’ll make America great again, it even says it on his hat”.

    After he’s in the Oval Office, he’ll have enough working digits to sign legislation from the Congress to paraphrase Grover Norquist. And that’s all we really need.

  25. 25
    debbie says:

    It was fun listening to Glenn Beck this morning, slamming Trump and doing god knows what to Cruz. But the best part was his reaction to the PP decision. He’s supported the film maker since the beginning. Instead of reacting to the indictments, he pointed out that this is what can be expected if Progressives won the election. If only!

  26. 26
    Granite says:


    Cruz doesn’t have a prayer. He’s down big in the latest polls.

    Trump is inevitable. Trump is a winner, Americans love winners.

  27. 27
    jl says:

    I predict Plan 9 from Planet 9 from Outer Space will be a major cult fiick hit.
    Only question is who will play Trump’s hair.

  28. 28
    Steve in the ATL says:


    with Kasich being a RINO

    Yeah, you’re gonna need to show your work on this one.

  29. 29
    Gin & Tonic says:


    School reform and pushing charters and testing accountability will be the central domestic issue for Jeb when he’s the nominee in the Fall Campaign of 2016.

    That’s why I never got why some in the base dislike Common Core. It can be the springboard to federal backing of charter schools/vouchers, and a Democrat interest group can be annihilated.

    “In a video he uploaded to Facebook on Tuesday, Donald Trump vowed to end the controversial nationwide education standards known as the Common Core.”

  30. 30
    Granite says:


    Glenn Beck is a dangerous nutjob.

    He will only help Trump by endorsing Cruz.

  31. 31
    Pogonip says:

    @Granite: Calm down. The people who program the voting machines are wholly owned by TPTB. Trump could get 99.9% of the vote and still not become president. The voting-machine companies probably won’t even bother to lie about it. I remember the owner of the Diebold voting-machine company stating frankly in 2004 that he intended to deliver Ohio for Bush, and he did.

    The question is which Wall Street whore, Clinton, Cruz, or Rubio, will be anointed president. I’m betting on Clinton because, unlike the other two, she’s guaranteed not to have an attack of End Times nuttiness, a comforting quality in someone whose finger is on the button.

  32. 32
    jl says:

    Granite2Rise switched sides?

  33. 33
    goblue72 says:

    @Granite: You kinda blew the sock puppetry there with the hat thing.

  34. 34
    Granite says:

    @Gin & Tonic:

    As I said, Donald Trump will be our tool once he’s in the White House.

    He just needs working fingers to sing GOP legislation from the Congress (authored by ALEC, of course!)

    The rest takes care of itself. He will be made to see the true nature of our party soon enough.

  35. 35
    chopper says:


    oh doug. you’re a national treasure.

  36. 36
    debbie says:


    Only question is who will play Trump’s hair.

    Betty’s dog! Remember that picture?

  37. 37
    Linda Featheringill says:

    It was a very interesting post until SOMEBODY hijacked the thread.

  38. 38
    Pogonip says:

    @Granite: Can I pick None Of The Above?

  39. 39
    chopper says:

    doug. you’re like a post-punk BIRDZILLA.

  40. 40
    goblue72 says:

    @Linda Featheringill: Clearly DougJ doesn’t like astronomy.

  41. 41
    Schlemazel says:

    I love Betty but I was pulling for that South American snail thing.

  42. 42
    Granite says:

    @Steve in the ATL:

    He expanded O-Care and talks about raising the minimum wage. He also speaks about bipartisanship. When you’re working with liberal Democrats, asking for bipartisanship is like asking to get date raped. RINO.

  43. 43
    Pogonip says:

    In the late ‘6o’s or early 70’s astrologer Linda Goodman predicted the discovery of Vulcan.

    Baud/Jane 2016. Because It’s A Jungle Out There. AND because only they can stop Trump!

  44. 44
    Schlemazel says:

    @Linda Featheringill:
    Yeah – I think he has run out his entertainment value, its pie time.

  45. 45
    goblue72 says:

    @jl: It’ll be played by an onion loaf. Some folks where an onion on their belt; Trump wears it on his head.

  46. 46
    Granite says:

    Trump wins at everything he ever does, everything. The thought of a wrinkled-up has-been professional politician like Hillary beating him is laughable.

    I can’t wait for the debates. He’ll ridicule her looks, the way she speaks, her poll numbers, and her husband. It’s going to be fucking great.


    “Look, her husband cheated on her several times. Several times, he couldn’t stand being with her. I’m just saying. If he doesn’t want to look at her, why should the American people”?

  47. 47
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    As exciting as this is – which is quite a lot – I’m still unhappy with Mike Brown over the demotion. Symbolically, it’s painful.

  48. 48
    trollhattan says:

    Many hold that the best response to a loose Canon is a Nikon, but I vote Olympus.

  49. 49
    chopper says:


    Trump wins at everything he ever does, everything.

    especially casinos, amirite?

  50. 50
    Granite says:


    He won financially in he end using the law.

    I’m just daydreaming of the Trump vs. Hillary debate right now. Ridicule is what he does best, and boy could he ever ridicule and burn Hillary on all kinds of stuff. It’s going to be fucking fantastic come October.

  51. 51
    Brachiator says:


    Stupid question. In the grand scheme of things, Putin is irrelevant. Russia’s role on the grand stage of international affairs ended in the late 20th century.

    Don’t know about the grand scheme, but right now, Putin has neutralized any influence the US had over Syria, and has quietly scrambled Western foreign policy in the Middle East.

    And we still have the implications of power plays such as the annexation of Crimea to deal with.

    At least we don’t have to worry about Putin claiming Planet Nine.
    Hope we get its existence or non-existence confirmed soon. This kind of stuff is amazing.

    Have any candidates been asked about the space and exploration budget?

  52. 52
    Steve in the ATL says:

    @trollhattan: Piker.

    Leica or nothing.

  53. 53
    trollhattan says:


    Trump wins at everything he ever does, everything. The thought of a wrinkled-up has-been professional politician like Hillary beating him is laughable.

    Do go on.
    I, for one, can’t wait for Trump the Elder’s criminal and racist past gets hauled out for public view, like a giant Reverend Wright.

  54. 54
    trollhattan says:

    @Steve in the ATL:
    [mutters to self] House, or Leica? Car, or Leica?

  55. 55
    NotMax says:


    Track record for accuracy and factuality of the racist, anti-Semitic one trick pony stands on its own (well, totters is more like it).

    What a maroon.

  56. 56
    Granite says:


    Trump is invincible. There’s nothing you can do to stop him. Every outrageous statement brings him even higher and higher poll numbers.

    He’s the strong horse, and the undecideds will go with the strong horse over the weak horse. It’s human nature.

    He will bullshit his way to the most powerful office in the world, and then the GOP will tell him what to do. We can control him.

  57. 57

    @jl: That seems to be the case. I think his new handle lets us know what passes for his brains.

  58. 58
    goblue72 says:

    @Brachiator: The Crimea thing is going to wind up being a footnote to a footnote. The only people concerned about Crimea are people whose careers depend on worrying about Crimea.

    As for Syria, footnote to a footnote. Best thing that could ever happen is a situation where the U.S. can’t do anything about Syria. Our track record in the Middle East is one long string of fuckups. The less we have opportunity to meddle militarily in the Middle East and more we are forced to focus on bilateral or multilateral agreements like Obama did with Iran, the better off we are.

  59. 59
    Cermet says:

    @Brachiator: Putin caused the US reduced influence in/over Syria?! You really know little about the Middle East to say something like that; Syria was, is and remains Russia’s only major “Allie” in the area. Over and above the fact that Russia is welcome to the worthless mess and frankly, we have more influence now in Syria then ever before since we have a say on the peace agreements, supply some rebels and even have something now in common with … wait for it … Iran! LOL.

  60. 60
    Mnemosyne says:


    The Granite State? You mean the place where libertarians decided to try and prove that they could run a state by leeching off 300 years of existing infrastructure? That New Hampshire?

    You know what, come talk to me when libertarians manage to build something from scratch on their principles rather than sucking other people’s tax dollars dry and then complaining they didn’t get enough.

  61. 61
    JustRuss says:

    Getting back to the subject at hand, one of my favorite TV moments, and worst pick up line ever:

  62. 62
    chopper says:


    best pick up line ever is “are you irish? cause my penis is Doublin’!”

  63. 63
    Brachiator says:


    Putin caused the US reduced influence in/over Syria?! You really know little about the Middle East to say something like that

    Odd. BBC news stories report that Assad is feeling more secure now that he has formal Russian support. It’s true that Russia has been Syria’s ally in the past (more for access to some military assets than love of Assad), but they had been holding back from greater support in deference to Obama Administration initiatives and internal Russian political debate. But once they decided to amp up Syrian support, the US was pushed back on its heels.

    So now, the US is soft-pedaling on its former “Assad must go rhetoric.” There are reports that Russia has bombed Syrian rebels while offering the polite lie that they are attacking ISIS, and the US says nothing, and does nothing, because they cannot do anything.

    RE: we have more influence now in Syria then ever before since we have a say on the peace agreements,

    BBC news story 8 hours ago:

    Russia’s foreign minister meanwhile declared its intervention had changed the course of the conflict in Syria, ahead of the start of peace talks.

    Sergei Lavrov also warned it would be impossible to negotiate a political settlement without allowing Kurdish groups to attend.

    Meanwhile civilians continue to suffer, and migrants are de-stabilizing Europe. US policy is tentative and uncertain. Even for you to suggest that Russia is “welcome to this mess” suggests that you accept that the US has been supplanted.

  64. 64
    redshirt says:

    @a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q): Pluto is smaller than many moons and doesn’t even really have its own orbit – Charon is so big, relatively, the two share a common planet. If Pluto is a planet, then Ceres is a planet too. Who wants that?

    I’m hopeful there are even more dark planets out there, like maybe even a brown dwarf.

    Also, this is one of the easiest sites on the web to troll. An obvious sockpuppet and yet folks be tripping over themselves to “correct him”.

  65. 65
    MobiusKlein says:

    I like how both Trump is an unstoppable force, yet simultaneously will be a puppet to the true powers.
    If cognitive dissonance were a super-power, you’d be leading the Justice League.

    eta: Or possibly substitute heroes

  66. 66
    PurpleGirl says:

    @chopper: To further your point: I can think of a few condo buildings in West Palm Beach that he licensed his name to and which weren’t finished. There just weren’t the buyers that the buildings needed to be financed. Yes, he licenses his name. Also there’s a gold course in Scotland that he couldn’t get the permission to build. The Scots didn’t want him there. The NYS Attorney General investigated his “Trump University” and decided it was a scam. No, there have been a lot of things where he hasn’t been successful and won what he wanted.

    So Granite, I think you need to follow his career a bit more closely.

  67. 67
    PurpleGirl says:

    @trollhattan: LOL, very good.

  68. 68
    PurpleGirl says:

    Every time someone says “we can control him” I think of the ending of the scene in Cabaret, where after the song “The Future Belongs to Me” is sung, the Christopher Isherwood character says to his companion “You still think you can control them” and the companion shrugs his shoulders as he enters the car.

  69. 69
    Jerzy Russian says:


    I’m hopeful there are even more dark planets out there, like maybe even a brown dwarf.

    The limits on large (Jupiter-sized) planets and on brown dwarfs in the distant solar system are very tight, based on all-sky surveys in the infrared.

  70. 70
    Grumpy Code Monkey says:

    Thanks to Granite for completely derailing the thread from its actual topic. No, really, you rock, dude (so to speak).

    Topic: =ahem=

    Where are we-a going?!


    When are we leaving?!


    Apparently, there was a commentor on Reddit who suggested the new planet (if it indeed exists) be named for Palatua, an obscure Roman goddess about which almost nothing is known. Appropriate for a planet we can’t even see (yet, again assuming it’s really there), and the name begins with a P, so everybody’s favorite mnemonics still apply.

  71. 71

    […] Hey, all:  if you’ve got a moment this afternoon, I’ll be talking with Ira Flatow on Science Friday about The Hunt for Vulcan in the context of last week’s announcement about Planet Nine. […]

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