“My Very Educated Mother” might need to rethink just who’s in her solar neighborhood...
photo via (cc) flickr user Boyarrin
In grade school I learned that our solar system consisted of very educated mothers serving us nine pizzas – a helpful acrostic which covered our entire planetary spectrum, from Mercury to the now-downgraded “planetoid” of Pluto. To this day, my sense of solar spacial reasoning is inextricably tied to images of galactic maternal figures and astronomical Italian food.
But, it seems, science is not content to leave a good mnemonic device alone.
According to two papers recently published by astronomers from Spain’s Complutense University of Madrid, and the University of Cambridge in the UK, there may actually be several large planetary bodies lurking somewhere out beyond Neptune’s orbit. And while we haven’t officially “discovered” those planets just yet, we may already be seeing their influence on the flotsam and jetsam of rock and ice usually found in the farthest reaches of the solar system
Explains Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson:
...the most accepted theory of trans-Neptunian objects is that they should orbit at a distance of about 150 AU [Note: “Astronomical Units”], be in an orbital plane – or inclination – similar to the planets in our Solar System, and they should be randomly distributed.
But that differs from what is actually observed. What astronomers see are groupings of objects with widely disperse distances (between 150 AU and 525 AU) and orbital inclinations that vary between 0 to 20 degrees.
In their papers, the scientists theorize that the unexpected dispersal and atypical orbital inclinations of these smaller, known objects, are a result of the gravitational presence of several large, undetected planetary bodies – an effect similar to one which they’ve already seen in regards to comets passing in proximity to Jupiter.
Which isn’t to say this theory doesn’t have its detractors. As Atkinson points out, the presence of large planetary bodies that far from the sun would run counter to the common understanding of how solar systems are formed. And so, it seems, the only way to determine if this new theory is accurate is to continue our astronomical observation of the far reaches of the solar system.
In the meantime, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi can take solace in the fact that, while he might not know what the moon is (HINT: it’s a moon) the rest of us may not understand our solar system as well as we thought, either.