Gravitational "bumper cars" could put Planet Nine hypothesis on ice

The rest of the objects in the solar system, however, are pulled into elliptical orbits by the gravity of giant planets like Jupiter and Neptune.

"We can solve a lot of these problems just by taking into account that question". It is a bit smaller than Pluto and takes more than 11,000 years to complete one trip around the sun.

"The picture we draw of the outer solar system in textbooks may have to change".

This means Sedna's orbit can transition from being relatively normal to appearing to be detached from our solar system because of a multitude of interactions with the gravity of smaller bodies.

The researchers calculated the mass of hundreds of trans-Neptunian objects and discovered that it wouldn't be a stretch for similar bodies to create enough gravitational pull to yank objects as large as dwarf planets into weird orbits. Fleisig, an undergraduate in astrophysics and his team of researchers suggest that perhaps a large singular body isn't what is causing the symptoms of Planet 9, but instead a large grouping of asteroids that are pulling on neighboring bodies.

An artist's rendering of Sedna, which looks reddish in color in telescope images.

Madigan and team weren't exactly looking to explain the unusual orbits of these bodies, but when Jacob Fleisig, the lead author of the study, ran a series of simulations to study the dynamics of these bodies, they were totally surprised.


According to the researchers' simulations, the TNOs move like hands on a clock, with the most massive objects moving slowly, like the hour hand, and the smaller ones ticking along quickly, like the minute hand.

Repeated interaction cycles among large and small TNOs may be responsible for pushing comets into the inner solar system on regular timescales.

"You see a pileup of the orbits of smaller objects to one side of the sun", Fleisig said in the statement, explaining the point when the two hands meet. Their findings the researchers presented at the 232nd meeting of the American astronomical society. "These orbits crash into the bigger body (a large TNO, not a gas giant), and what happens is those interactions will change its orbit from an oval shape to a more circular shape", he said. But because the largest objects are hurled into the most eccentric orbits, they become more hard to find, the researchers said.

"Planet Nine explains this really well, and we do not", Madigan said.

The gravitational interactions among TNOs may also explain another odd event: the extinction of the nonavian dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. The team's observations also fall in line with research from 2012, which observed that the bigger a detached object gets, the farther away its orbit becomes from the sun.

According to the team, the dinosaur-killing asteroid that hammered our planet 65 million years ago, wiping out almost 75 percent of life on Earth, could have been sent on its collision path by the periodic comet showers that turned up in Fleisig's computer model.

"While we're not able to say that this pattern killed the dinosaurs", Fleisig said, "it's tantalizing".

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