The hunt for Planet 9

7 months ago Kiran Vastrad 0

Michael E. Brown is often called “the guy who killed Pluto.” But he takes the moniker in stride. Sitting in his sunny Pasadena office at the California Institute of Technology, Brown jokes that Pluto, which was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006, had it coming. The year before, Brown had discovered Eris, a frosty dwarf in the outer solar system more massive than Pluto and named, fittingly, for the Greek goddess of strife. Now, Brown is trying to find a new planet that is Planet 9.

Space telecope used to survey Planet 9
Space telescope used to survey Planet 9

Huge telescopes on Earth have been scanning the skies for months now. Brown and Batygin have been observing on Japan’s Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea as have veteran minor-planet hunters Chad Trujillo of Northern Arizona University and Scott of the Carnegie Institution for Science to exploit that observatory’s giant mirror (8.2 meters across) and its 3-metric-ton, 870-megapixel camera.

Meanwhile, other astronomers, both professional and amateur, are digging through archives of images in hopes of finding this needle in a hayfield. Any of them could get lucky.

But the smart money is on software, either to deliver the quarry or reveal it to be an illusion. Simulations running on supercomputers, and in the cloud are modeling billions of years of scientists to pin down Planet 9’s likeliest path. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, have been analyzing telemetry from the Cassini spacecraft for clues to the current position of the putative planet within its enormous orbit. And an ambitious pair of graduate students is preparing to deploy machine-learning software on a petaflop-scale Cray XC40 supercomputer.

Their strategy aims to cleverly combine multiple images in which Planet Nine is hidden within the noise to yield one image in which it shines unmistakably. Although many astronomers share Brown’s enthusiasm at the prospect of finding a planet bigger than Earth for the first time in 170 years.

Visit Planet 9 coming soon.