Scientists at Harvard University and the Black Hole Initiative (BHI) have developed a new method that could crack the Planet Nine conundrum once and for all. Since 2015, astronomers have been trying to determine whether an undiscovered planet is orbiting the Sun far beyond Pluto. Some researchers have proposed the hypothetical planet could be a black hole instead.
A new study accepted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters hopes to prove or disprove the theory.
The study highlights the ability of the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) mission to observe so-called accretion flares.
Accretion flares are caused by the disruption of comets intercepted by a black hole’s gravitational tug.
Amir Siraj, a Harvard undergraduate student, said: “In the vicinity of a black hole, small bodies that approach it will melt as a result of heating from the background accretion of gas from the interstellar medium onto the black hole.”
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Dr Avi Loeb said: “Once they melt, the small bodies are subject to tidal disruption by the black hole, followed by accretion from the tidally disrupted body onto the black hole.”
Because black holes are virtually invisible to all instruments, astronomers have to instead look for their radiation signatures.
In this case, they would look for the radiation emitted by matter falling towards the black hole.
The new method proposed by the scientists could inform future searchers for black holes as well as Planet Nine.
Mr Siraj said: “This method can detect or rule out trapped planet-mass black holes out to the edge of the Oort cloud, or about a hundred thousand astronomical units.
Finding Planet Nine is like discovering a cousin living in the shed behind your home
Dr Avi Loeb, Harvard
“It could be capable of placing new limits on the fraction of dark matter contained in primordial black holes.”
The LSST is a planned 10-year survey of the southern skies that will take place at the El Penon peak of Cerro Pachon in northern Chile.
The mission will survey the skies twice a week and the new study focuses on Planet Nine as a prime candidate for observations.
Dr Loeb said: “The outskirts of the solar system is our backyard.
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“Finding Planet Nine is like discovering a cousin living in the shed behind your home which you never knew about.
“It immediately raises questions: why is it there? How did it obtain its properties? Did it shape the solar system history? Are there more like it?”
In 2015, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown revealed evidence suggesting a giant planet on an unusual orbit exists in the outer solar system.
The hypothetical planet could be up to 10 times heavier than Earth and 20 times farther from the Sun than Neptune.
A planet that far away from the Sun would take between 10,000 and 20,000 years to complete a lap.
Although never observed, its presence could explain the unique orbits of some objects in the Kuiper Belt – a field of asteroids and planetesimals past Pluto.
Mr Siraj said: “There has been a great deal of speculation concerning alternative explanations for the anomalous orbits observed in the outer solar system.
“One of the ideas put forth was the possibility that Planet Nine could be a grapefruit-sized black hole with a mass of five to ten times that of the Earth.”
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