Bad Astronomer describes the work – Two astronomers, John Matese and Dan Whitmire, have theorized about the possibility of a previously-undiscovered planet way beyond Pluto for some time. This is not a crazy idea; we see planets orbiting other stars way out, and there’s other evidence big planets can be pretty far out from the Sun (mind you, evidence does not mean proof). As it happens, there are lots of chunks of ice orbiting the Sun pretty far out as well. Some of these have orbits which bring them into the inner solar system, and we seem them as long-period comets.
What Matese and Whitmire did was wonder how a big planet would affect the orbits of these comets. If you measured enough of them, would you see the effects of the gravity of this planet? They claim you can, and even gave the planet a tentative name: Tyche. I [Bad Astronomer Phil Plaitt] read their papers, and thought the data were interesting but unconvincing.
Professors Matese and Whitmire first proposed the existence of Tyche to explain why many of these long-period comets were coming from the wrong direction. In their latest paper, published in the February issue of Icarus, the international journal of solar system studies, they report that more than 20 per cent too many of the long-period comets observed since 1898 arrive from a band circling the sky at a higher angle than predicted by the galactic-tide theory.
No other proposal has been put forward to explain this anomaly since it was first suggested 12 years ago. But the Tyche hypothesis does have one flaw. Conventional theory holds that the gas giant should also dislodge comets from the inner Oort Cloud, but these have not been observed.
Professor Matese suggests this may be because these comets have already been tugged out of their orbits and, after several passes through the inner solar system, have faded to the point that they are much harder to detect.
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