In the January edition of Icarus, the Journal of Planetary Science of the American Astrophysical Society, UL faculty John Matese and Daniel Whitmire published stronger evidence for their hypothesized planet, Tyche, which would be located about 2 trillion km from the Sun. This morning The London Daily Mail carried the article, and media around the world have picked up the story.

ultoday.com spoke with Dr. Matese about the news.  (See article abstract, below.)

Tell us about Tyche.

First of all, it's a conjecture we have about the existence of an object in our Solar System. There is some persistent evidence, over the last 10 or 12 years, that there may be an object in our system larger than Jupiter, but well outside of the conventional Solar System. If the planet exists, the data suggests that this object may be 2 or 3 times larger than Jupiter, and maybe 3000 times further from the Sun. Because of that, the distance would be sufficiently large that conventional telescopes would not be able to see it. A year or so ago a satellite infrared telescope, WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer) went up and it looks at the part of electromagnetic spectrum, near infrared, which doesn't get through our atmosphere very well. If Tyche exists, it would be emitting light in the midrange infrared.

You guys have been working on this 12 years. Why has it suddenly garnered more attention?

The number of Oort cloud comets currently observable has doubled from when we started our work, which doubles the number of observations we can analyze. We recently published a paper in Icarus saying that the evidence we found previously continues to manifest itself in the newer data, and that in the last 12 years no one has published anything saying our arguments are wrong.

Some of the reports say that NASA may already have the data to prove the existence of Tyche. Why aren't they releasing it now?

The WISE satellite has been up there for a year accumulating data. It's a survey satellite, it looks at the entire sky for potential sources of light, and it has identified a large number of objects that they might find interesting. They are looking for ultracool dwarfs, from 1 Jupiter mass out to 30-40 Jupiter masses.

NASA has done the survey, they've recorded the data, but now they need to cull the data, farm it out to other infrared telescopes, then those do follow-up investigations. If it exists, Tyche would not be unusually bright, so it would be relatively far down the line in their priorities.

Could this be the planet that was hypothesized to cause the periodic mass extinctions we have seen on Earth, and which may have killed off the dinosaurs?

No, that was the Nemesis conjecture. 28 years or so ago there was the conjecture of an even larger object, further out, but that data is not connected to ours. The evidence was that the larger one created comet storms that crashed into the Earth. That topic is still being debated.

What would be the significance of Tyche?

If it exists, it would not have formed in the same way as the known planets did. Our planets revolve around the Sun in the same plane, so it is conjectured that they were the result of gas and dust condensations that gathered in a disc around what is now the Sun.

It is conjectured that the condensation our Sun and planets was part of a larger set of stellar/planet condensations, and the complex would have been a violent environment. It's believed that in these situations, planets from other star systems might be ejected and then captured by neighboring stars, perhaps even our Sun.

Such a planet would rotate in a different plane in orientation to our current planet orbits. If it exists, Tyche rotates in the Oort cloud which extends as far as 100,000 times further from the Sun than Earth. The outer Oort cloud is a spherical shell believed to be made up of comets spit out of other systems and captured by our Sun in this star-forming event.

Tyche would lend credence to the argument that not just comets, but all sorts of objects can be captured in these sorts of orbital systems.

Would this be the first new planet in the Solar System in some years?

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) would decide what to call Tyche. We have never found in any stellar systems a Jupiter mass object that rotates out at that distance from the central star, they've never seen a wide binary object of that size. From its size, the IAU may call it a planet. Or because of the formation and distance from the Sun, they may decide to call it something like an ultracool dwarf.

If it exists, would Tyche interest the Nobel committee?

No, not even close. We probably wouldn't even get credit for the discovery. We have data that suggests it's out there, what its mass is and what its path is, but we can't tell where it is on the path.


abstract
Persistent Evidence of a Jovian Mass Solar Companion in the Oort Cloud
Icarus, Volume 211, Issue 2, February 2011, Pages 926-938

John J. Matese and Daniel P. Whitmire
Department of Physics, University of Louisiana, Lafayette, LA 70504-4210, USA

Abstract

We present updated dynamical and statistical analyses of outer Oort cloud cometary evidence suggesting that the Sun has a wide-binary jovian mass companion. The results support a conjecture that there exists a companion of mass ≈ 1 - 4 MJupiter source orbiting in the innermost region of the outer Oort cloud. Our most restrictive prediction is that the orientation angles of the orbit plane in galactic coordinates are centered on Ω, the galactic longitude of the ascending node = 319° and i, the galactic inclination = 103° (or the opposite direction) with an uncertainty in the orbit normal direction subtending <2% of the sky. Such a companion could also have produced the detached Kuiper Belt object Sedna. If the object exists, the absence of similar evidence in the inner Oort cloud implies that common beliefs about the origin of observed inner Oort cloud comets must be reconsidered. Evidence of the putative companion would have been recorded by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) which has completed its primary mission and is continuing on secondary objectives.

Research highlights

  • We present updated dynamical and statistical analyses of outer Oort cloud cometary evidence suggesting that the sun has a wide-binary jovian mass companion.
  • The results support a conjecture that there exists a companion of mass approximately 1–4 MJupiter orbiting in the innermost region of the outer Oort cloud.
  • Evidence of the putative companion would have been recorded by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) which has completed its primary mission and is continuing on secondary objectives.

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