Remarks of extremely distant objects, such as the newly founded FarFarOut, could lead to the discovery of the Planet Nine hypothesis, seen here in the illustration of an artist.
Credit: R. Hurt (IPAC) / Caltech
The solar system has a new champion away.
Astronomers have just found an object that places 140 astronomical units (AU) of the sun. That is 140 times the distance between Earth and the Sun, which is about 93 million kilometers (150 million kilometers). In case you want another perspective: Pluto orbits the sun at an average distance of about 39.5 AU.
"This is hot from the improvised," said Scott Sheppard, from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, during a public lecture on Thursday (February 21) at her institution.
Related: Solar System Explained From Inside Out (Infographic)
In fact, Sheppard announced the detection during that talk; It has not yet been peer-reviewed, not even written as an article. Sheppard said that he saw the object, called FarFarOut, just the night before, while he was going through telescopic images collected in January from the outer solar system.
That was a good use of a snowy day: the talk of Sheppard was scheduled for February 20 but was rejected by bad weather. (You can see the full 54-minute conversation here. Sheppard starts talking about FarFarOut in the 39 minute and 30-second mark).
Sheppard and his team do not know much about FarFarOut. They just saw, in the end, and did not gather enough data to determine their orbit or calculate a size estimate. They plan to continue watching FarFarOut to collect this information, but doing so can be difficult. "It's very weak," said Sheppard. "You are on the verge of our ability to detect it."
The nickname of the new body is a nod to Farout, the old recorder of distance, whose discovery announced to Sheppard and his colleagues in December. Farout, officially known as 2018 VG18, is currently about 120 AU from the sun. The object is a dwarf planet that takes about 1,000 years to complete a return around our star.
To clarify: the distance records that we are talking about here are for the current places of objects. There are many bodies that exceed 140 UA at some point in their routes (often highly elliptical) around the sun. The dwarf planet Sedna, for example, arrives more than 900 UA. And the gorgeous cloud of Oort, which starts at about 5,000 AU from the sun, probably contains trillions of comets.
Sheppard has been rubbing the outer solar system for years, along with leading Chad Trujillo collaborators from Northern Arizona University and Dave Tholen of the University of Hawaii, using instruments such as the 8-meter Subaru Telescope in Hawaii. Researchers are not only investigating a little-known kingdom, but also looking for signs of the Nine Planet hypothesis (or Planet X, or the Next Planet or the Giant Planet Five.
The work of the team – that of other researchers, notably Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin of Caltech – suggests that the Ninemay planet actually exists in the dark depths of the solar system further away. The orbits of many small and distant objects seem to be sculpted by the gravity of a great "disturbing", which can be approximately 10 times more massive than the Earth and lies, on average, about 600 AU from the sun.
The search Nine Planet is not a crazy curse: Sheppard puts the probability that the world's existence reaches 85 percent, told Space.com last fall.
Mike Wall's book on the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018, illustrated by Karl Tate) is now out. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter@ Spacedotcom or Facebook.