Hidden planet or new law of gravity could be the answer to the solar system’s mysteries

An artist’s impression of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO), located on the outer rim of our solar system at a staggering distance of 4 billion miles from the sun. Credit: NASA

In a fascinating twist to the cosmic detective tales, a new possibility has emerged in the search for a supposed ninth planet in our solar system.

Two theoretical physicists, Harsh Mathur from Case Western Reserve University and Katherine Brown from Hamilton College, have proposed an alternative explanation that challenges the existence of this enigmatic planet.

Their exploration into a different interpretation of the law of gravity could reveal answers not just about our solar system but might also throw light on the bigger, celestial mysteries surrounding us.

For some years, scientists have been intrigued by unusual patterns in the way certain objects, far out in our solar system, move.

Their odd orbital behaviors were thought to be influenced by a yet-undiscovered ninth planet that exerted its gravitational force upon them.

This hypothetical Planet Nine was credited for the weirdly aligned orbits of these distant objects, and thus, a new hunt began, echoing the tales of how Neptune was discovered in the 19th century and how the distinctive orbital dance of Mercury supported Einstein’s revolutionary theory of gravity a century ago.

However, Mathur and Brown have turned this cosmic mystery on its head by suggesting that perhaps, it’s not a hidden planet that’s causing these anomalies, but something more fundamental – a modification in our understanding of gravity itself.

The pair applied a theory known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) to understand the strange orbital dance of the objects in the outer realms of our solar system.

Isaac Newton, the 17th-century scientist, gave us the universal law of gravitation, describing how objects attract each other across space, which has stood robust for centuries.

However, MOND proposes a tantalizing possibility that Newton’s law has its limitations. This theory suggests that when gravitational forces become weak enough, as is the case in the vast distances and lower masses of outer space, a different kind of gravitational behavior kicks in.

Interestingly, MOND has previously proven successful in explaining the rotation of galaxies without relying on the elusive dark matter – a mysterious substance that seemingly binds the galaxies together yet refuses to interact with light and, therefore, remains invisible and undetected.

In their recent study, published in The Astronomical Journal, Mathur and Brown found that MOND might also be playing a role closer to home, in our very own solar system.

They found that the peculiar orbits of the distant solar system objects were not necessarily pointing towards the influence of a ninth planet, but could also be explained by MOND.

Specifically, over millions of years, the gravitational field of the Milky Way galaxy, if interacted with as per MOND’s principles, could align the orbits of these distant objects in the observed peculiar manner.

The duo carefully illustrates that their findings do not rule out the possibility of Planet Nine, especially given that the dataset used for their studies is limited. It’s crucial to understand that their findings represent a possibility, not a conclusion.

Other scientists have provided alternative explanations too, including the possibility that observational bias – meaning astronomers seeing what they expect or hope to see – might be influencing interpretations of the available data.

Regardless of which theory holds up in the end, Brown emphasizes the exciting potential for our own outer solar system to become a playground for testing our fundamental understanding of gravity and physics.

The ongoing search for explanations and the continued investigations into both the ninth planet and alternative gravitational theories underscore how much more there is to explore and understand in our cosmic neighborhood.

In this unfolding celestial mystery, whether a hidden planet will emerge from the shadows or our understanding of gravity will be revolutionized, only time, and further exploration will tell.

It’s clear though, that the stories our solar system has to tell are far from finished, and each new chapter brings fresh wonders and challenges to our understanding of the cosmos.

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Source: Case Western Reserve University.