We have come a long way in figuring out the Universe. Astronomers have discovered, galaxies, stars and black holes and come up with mindblowing theories, which will completely muddle your brain. However, have you ever wondered how much we know about our own galaxy, the Milky Way?
Our lives were literally jolted in 2006, when Michael E. Brown, aka 'the man who killed Pluto', declared that Pluto, the icy cold ninth planet of our solar system, is not actually a real planet but a dwarf planet. Well, the American astronomer is not done giving us surprises. Brown believes that our solar system actually has a proper ninth planet and hopes to soon find out the Neptune-sized planet, which is 8 to 10 times as massive as Earth, soon.
Last year Brown had published his calculations, along with his former student Konstantin Batygin, which show that a frozen world exists out there somewhere around 5.5 light-days, or roughly 150 billion kilometres away from Sun. Moreover, it might be so massive that it is believed to have tipped the entire solar system a few degrees sideways.
Astronomers, both professional and amateur, have been scanning the skies for months now to find out this Planet Nine - which is so far away from the Sun that a bright noon on its surface is no brighter than a moonlight night. Planet Nine would barely cover two pixels width on the Hubble Space Telescope's camera; so faint that it can easily be mistaken as random speckles of sensor noise or a flash from some remote, inconsistent star.
The primary search for the Planet Nine is being conducted using Japan's Subaru telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Two teams of astronomers have undertaken this search. While one team includes Brown and Batygin, the other team consists of veteran minor-planet hunters Chad Trujillo of Northern Arizona University and Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science. Other than that another project, dubbed Dark Energy Survey, is also searching a zone near the constellation Cetus in search of the Planet Nine. David Gerdes, who helped develop the camera used in the Dark Energy Survey, believes that it's very much possible that one of the images taken for his galaxy map may actually carry a picture of the mystery planet and a newly developed software can help to find it from those images.
Two graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, Michael Medford and Danny Goldstein, are also trying to find this lonely planet.They are currently examining archived data using a technique, which brings together multiple images, taken at different times. Using a supercomputer they are going to offset the images to account for the calculated motion of Planet Nine, allowing many faint images of a pale moving object to be combined to produce a brighter image.
Any of these groups may become lucky and actually manage to get a clear glimpse of the Planet Nine. However, the smart bet is on software rather than hardware. Engineers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, have been examining the telemetry coming from the Cassini spacecraft to get clues about where the putative planet might be located currently within its enormous orbit.
"I actually think we will not discover Planet Nine by scanning the sky," says Brown. "We could, but I think somebody will find it first in archival data."
Other than the professional experts, a pool of amateurs has also joined in the quest. In February 2017, Marc Kuchner of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center helped launch a crowd-sourced effort to compare successive infrared images by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer space telescope of the same spot in the sky.
The project had already recruited 40,000 volunteers by July, who had systematically reviewed more than 125,000 chunks of space. Another southern-sky version of the project was launched in March with data from the Australian SkyMapper telescope. It blew through 106,000 search regions within a short span of just three days.
Although these citizen-science projects are laudable, chances of getting success are quite low, as small telescopes simply cannot gather enough light to see something as faint and distant as Planet Nine.
Be it the commoners or the experts discovering Planet Nine, it should not be the ominous Nibiru that the conspiracy theorists are warning us about. According to popular belief, Planet Nine is Nibiru, which is moving closer to Earth with every passing minute and will eventually destroy the living planet with its tremendous gravitational pull.