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One Big Planet Nine, Or A Swarm Of Small Icy Worlds?
The outermost Solar System is a confusing and complicated place. Once you get Neptune, the comets, Kuiper belt objects, and other small icy worlds orbit the Sun in odd patterns. A few of those, including the very distant world known as Sedna, have orbits that make very little sense compared with other Solar System inhabitants. For that reason, some astronomers think there’s a Planet Nine hiding far beyond Pluto’s orbit: a giant world roughly 10 times the mass of Earth.
But a new study by University of Colorado researchers proposed an alternative explanation. Astronomer Ann-Marie Madigan and her student Jacob Fleisig realized they could reproduce the strange orbits of icy worlds just by the way they interact with each other: no Planet Nine necessary. The idea is they sometimes swarm (in a broad sense) during their orbits, and when multiple Moon-sized bodies are in the same general region, it’s enough to kick other worlds like Sedna into their wild trajectories. It’s an eminently sensible explanation, and since two years of hunting for Planet Nine haven’t turned up anything, the hypothesis is definitely worth pondering more. However, we haven’t seen enough of these small worlds yet either, so the race is now on to see which explanation is correct.