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​NASA looks for Planet X but comes up empty

Published time: March 10, 2014 21:37
NASA using its Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) (Image from nasa.gov)

NASA using its Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) (Image from nasa.gov)

NASA has decided to determine once and for all whether Planet X – the mythical planet that’s been theorized for millennia – exists. Sadly, a rigorous infrared survey of our galactic neighborhood returned no clues, but yielded plenty of other findings.

The history of the theorizing is remarkable itself as it struck fear into the hearts of many an ancient civilization, which supposedly saw it changing positions in the night sky, wrote poetry about it, and told frightening legends.

The ‘Nibiru cataclysm’ – from the planet’s other mythical name – purports that a massive celestial body would either collide with or pass by Earth sometime in the 21st century, causing, understandably, extinction. Its orbit was supposedly so wide that we haven’t been able to spot it all this time; in fact, its orbit was thought to be just wider than that of Pluto.

Even so, plenty of scientific attempts have been made, mainly by using geological studies to connect Nibiru’s presence with all of the major mass extinctions on Earth. The hypothesis was that a large planet or a small, distant star hidden from our view passed in similar orbits to the bands of outer comets, sending them hurling on a collision course with our home. But the legends have always been rejected as pseudoscience by real astronomers.

However, NASA decided to give it a go, using its Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Sadly, "the outer solar system probably does not contain a large gas giant planet, or a small, companion star," according to Kevin Luhmann of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, who authored a paper in the Astrophysical Journal detailing the findings.

However, as WISE scanned the skies in a second study of our cosmic backyard, it found “neighboring star systems that have been hiding in plain sight just [jumping] out in the WISE data,” as principle investigator Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles, put it.

A total of 3,525 stars and brown dwarfs within 500 light years of our sun were discovered. This has caused much excitement at NASA, with Davy Kirkpatrick of the space agency's Infrared Processing Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena admitting that NASA is “finding objects that were totally overlooked before.” He is lead author on the second paper, published in the same journal as the first.

Some of the objects in both studies were found to correlate. The mission started in 2010 lasted for a year, performing two full sky scans with a six-month gap between them. When the results were released in 2013, professional and budding astronomers were able to compare the two scans to look for moving objects. It was ruled that the more the object travelled from one scan to the next, the closer it was.

Scientists were pleased to have discovered, among other things, a pair of brown dwarfs only 6.5 light years away, making it the closest star system to ours found in nearly a century of astronomy. This is why, despite the failure with Planet X, NASA thinks “there are even more stars out there left to find with WISE. We don’t know our own sun’s backyard as well as you might think,” Wright added.