Theoretical Planet Nine may be our solar system's Rogue One

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Jan 21, 2017

Far, far away, Pluto may seem like the final frontier, but it may not have always been so. Further away, there may have been a rebel from wild space that broke into our solar system a long, long time ago ... and it might still be there.

Planet Nine has been on astronomers' radars since a research team detected mysterious gravitational forces near our solar system’s outer limits. While a planet that strayed through space into another solar system may sound like a military base for Dark Side operatives, it could be closer to science fact than science fiction. Further study has determined these forces reflected a celestial body the size of ten Earths. Now simulations conducted by researching scientists could be a few light-years closer to proving that this much theorized-about planet—if it really is floating out there—is a ROGUE.

Rogue planets are the space cowboys of the universe. They emerge in either another star system or somewhere else in the dark reaches of infinite space, then escape to meander around the vast emptiness alone for millions and even billions of years. Some are violently thrown from a newly-formed star system amidst the chaos of its inception. Others somehow wander too far from the pull of their star’s gravity. There is no sunrise or sunset to warm the frozen surface of a stranded planet. These sunless, starless worlds float in near-oblivion until the gravitational influence of another star system pulls them into orbit.

Where Planet Nine is in relation to our solar system.

Demystifying rogue planets involves simulations of cosmic masses being affected by specific levels of gravity. Called N-body simulations, they shed light on planets wandering the shadows without a star, not an uncommon phenomenon in the Milky Way. “We performed N-body simulations of rogue encounters with the solar system with a variety of impact parameters," state astronomers James Vesper and Paul A. Mason of New Mexico State University in a paper describing their findings. "We find that Jupiter's mass and higher rogues leave a significant imprint on planetary system architecture." Jupiter is just slightly more massive than Planet 9 is believed to be.

What the simulations revealed is that rebel planets drifting aimlessly in our galaxy fall under the influence of our solar system's gravity (and are thus pulled into orbit) about 40% of the time while they apparently elude gravitational forces about 60% of the time. Simulation results also indicate that before gravity consistent with a Jupiter-size rogue (317.8 times the mass of earth) was ever detected, the orderliness of our sun and eight planets suggests that nothing larger than Neptune — still 17 times the mass of Earth — could have ever been pulled into orbit. Anything more monstrous than that would have permanently disrupted our solar system.

Astronomers believe they are on the edge of proving Planet Nine's existence possibly as soon as next year, though whether it is associated with the Light or Dark Side of the Force remains unknown.