Our solar system has had some trauma in recent years with astronomers a few years ago demoting Pluto from planet status to "dwarf planet" status. Next, astronomers have found giant storms developing on Jupiter and Saturn and several believe the entire solar system is starting to warm for some reason. Finally, on Sunday the sun decided to return to life spitting out a solar flare that was the largest in four years.
This led to a lighting of the Monday night sky with a bright aurora especially in the northern hemisphere. If this wasn't spectacular enough, Tuesday afternoon folks on the East coast in the area of New York and New Jersey were treated to a meteoric fireball that rivaled the sun for its brightness. Those who saw it just after lunchtime said it was extremely bright and visible for a few seconds. Scientists say the meteor was estimated to be five feet wide and exploded with the force of ten megatons of TNT. It's estimated speed was 33,500 miles per hour.
Although these interesting current events occurred this week, one news story stands out as something novel that I had not heard before this week. Before we discuss this story, let's review the basics that most of us learned in school. The solar system revolves around the sun and is composed of nine planets. Make that eight planets and one dwarf planet. The planets themselves are divided into two groups, the inner planets and the outer planets. Between the two groupings is the inner asteroid belt which contains several non-threatening asteroids and one dwarf planet named Ceres. Ceres may have an ocean's worth of water on or inside of it.
Past the asteroid belt is the outer solar system. The inner solar system consists of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The outer solar system contains Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. They are considered the gas giants of the system and are many times larger than the Earth. These four planets are also surrounded by another asteroid belt known as the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt. It is in this body of mostly frozen objects composed of methane, ammonia and water that we find the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon. While Pluto has three moons, Charon is considered to be a companion planet to Pluto forming a binary planetary unit.
Most of this I remembered from school. Some new facts have surfaced since then however. One of the interesting things that has been learned since my science days included most of the planets including earth have some type of rings around them but none rival Saturn. While the other planets rotate on angles on their axes, Uranus rotates on a plane perpendicular to the sun. Neptune and Pluto cross orbits making Neptune the farthest planet for 20 years every 248 year revolution around the sun.
Flybys of Jupiter's largest moon, Europa have led scientists to believe that this satellite may have a liquid surface encased under ice and within this ocean may be primitive forms of life. Closer to home, scientists have discovered water on the polar region of the moon and some even speculate there may be frozen water on Mars as well.
While those of you who are space enthusiasts may have already heard this, I read with great interest this week about new speculation regarding comets and a possible mystery planet at the edge of our solar system. While the previous information in this column is accepted science facts, the remainder is speculation based on the observations of some evidence collected through studying the skies and the bodies they contain.
Some scientists believe that beyond the second asteroid belt at the farthest edge of the solar system is a large barrier of comets and ice objects that surround the solar system in almost a cloud like body. This cloud is referred to as the Oort Cloud and may be three light years thick. This layer is approximately one light year from the sun. Based on the study of comets which orbit the sun through the solar system, there are some astronomers who believe a massive planet hides within this cloud and distorts or affects the paths of these comets. The planet is known as Tyche by its proponents and was first speculated about in 1998.
Astronomers based this speculation on studying the anomalies that occur with comets in the inner Oort cloud that appear to cause the comets to travel into the solar system periodically. This is a controversial idea and many colleagues believe the proponents of Tyche are misinterpreting the data.
Other scientists propose a rival model that supports a twin star that is a red or brown dwarf that orbits with the sun on the outside of the Oort cloud. In this model, the twin star named Nemesis periodically enters the Oort cloud jostling comets and sending them plummeting toward the inner solar system possibly making them responsible for the mass extinctions that periodically occur on Earth.
One final theoretical planet which I will address in more detail in a future column is Nibiru or Planet X. Recently deceased author Zecharia Sitchin allegedly is on an orbit that has a period of 3,600 years and may be close to returning into the known solar system soon. Sitchin theorizes that we are placed here by a race called the Anunnaki to work as slaves for them and they monitor us regularly.
Maybe we will learn more as our exploratory ships fly further out of the solar system. Time will tell.
Til next time …