April 19, 2019

The Hunt for Planet Nine

“At 9,200 feet, there is 20 percent less oxygen than at sea level, enough to take all the air from my lungs after just three steps. But it didn’t stop Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin from hastily shuffling into the lobby of Hale Pōhaku to check the weather forecast. They stared at the TV monitor, craning their necks, suitcases in one hand, fingers pointing to the screens with the other. “It’s Sunday,” Brown said, “there’s no new forecast until tomorrow. Damn.” We were at base camp on the dormant volcano Mauna Kea, on the big Island of Hawaii. The pair were here to use one of the most powerful telescopes in the world, called Subaru. Tomorrow night, December 3, marked the start of their sixth observing run and their next attempt to find the biggest missing object in our solar system, called — for the moment — Planet Nine.

The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, located at Hale Pōhaku, looked exactly as you might imagine a Hawaiian dormitory built in the early 1980s would. Each table was covered in an azure nylon tablecloth with salt and pepper shakers. The backs of the chairs depicted scenes from around the island: Mauna Kea, palm trees, snow-capped volcanoes, sandy beaches. It was 7 p.m. when we arrived, and most everyone who lived and worked at these dorms was asleep. (In astronomers’ quarters, most people sleep during the day or wake at odd hours of the night to go to work.) The cafeteria was empty. “Oh my god, they have Pop-Tarts! They haven’t had Pop-Tarts here for ten years!” said Brown as he unwrapped the shiny foil package to put one in the toaster. This was a good sign — Pop-Tarts are the nonsuperstitious tradition of astronomical observing — and also dinner.

We would have a snack and go over the game plan for tomorrow night. Brown and Batygin sat down at one of the round tables, laptops out. Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, felt optimistic. Batygin, a theoretical astrophysicist and professor of Planetary Sciences at Caltech, guessed it would take them 10 more years of observing. This is their dynamic. If the planet they’re looking for exists, it is likely six times the mass of Earth, with an atmosphere made of hydrogen and helium covering its rock-and-ice core. What makes it hard to find is its likely location: at least 400 times further away from the sun than our own planet, and 15 to 20 times further out than Pluto. As a theorist Batygin feels that he’s already mathematically proven its existence. But it’s generally accepted that for a planet to be considered discovered in the field of astronomy, the theory must also be accompanied by a photograph. This is where the Subaru telescope comes in. They know that Planet Nine is somewhere in between the constellation Orion and Taurus, but that’s about as exact as they can get, and they’ll need good weather to locate it. Right now the last predicted forecast showed fog. Even at six times the mass of earth, Planet Nine is so far away that it would appear as a barely visible point of light, even through the lens of the most powerful telescope they could get their hands on.”

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