Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 25, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The Real and Historical Story of Planet X


This is the first post in what will become a series of posts over the next few days/weeks about the oft-portrayed mysterious, dangerous, possibly alien-harboring, Earth-destroying object touted as “Planet X.”

This being a blog about pseudo-astronomy, you should not be surprised to learn by reading it that there is no dangerous Planet X out there that’s going to cause a pole shift as Earth goes through the “dark rift” of our galaxy in 2012. However, in this first post, I’m going to describe what the real Planet X was in astronomy, a mystery that was created with the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, and didn’t end until we precisely calculated the mass of Neptune in 1993.

All posts in this series:

Finding Uranus

Until 1781, the solar system was known to consist of Earth, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, along with the moon, some other moons, and some unexplainable and unpredictable comets. That was it, and it wasn’t until William Herschel observed a ball-like object (not star-like) moving among the fixed background stars.

It took two years for Herschel to admit that he had really discovered the first planet in recorded history. But since it was discovered after Newton created Calculus and Kepler the Laws of Planetary Motion, various astronomers and mathematicians were able to observe it and predict its orbit based on its distance from the sun and the gravitational interactions with other planets.

The First Planet X

One of these people was Alexis Bouvard, who published tables of dates and coordinates that predicted where Uranus should be at a given time. These were based on the known laws of physics. But, Uranus refused to follow Bouvard’s tables.

In 1843, John Couch Adams (from Britain) calculated the orbit of a hypothesized eighth planet that could account for Uranus’ odd orbit. But no one really seemed to care about this undiscovered Planet X.

Two years later, a Frenchman by the name of Urbain Le Verrier did the same thing, but more precisely. Again, no one seemed to care. That was until Le Verrier sent his calculations to the Berlin Observatory’s astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle. A then-student at the observatory, Heinrich d’Arrest, convinced Galle to look for it.

That evening, September 23, 1846, Galle looked for this mysterious planet, responsible for Uranus’ weird orbit, and he found the planet within 1° of where Le Verrier thought it would be (for reference, the moon on the sky is 0.5°). This was within 12° of where Adams thought it should be.

At the time, there was no real debate that this object was a “planet,” as they had been looking for it and thought it was massive enough to account for Uranus’ orbit.

The Second Planet X

However, there were still some unexplained perturbations of Uranus’ orbit. These persisted for 70 years, to the time that Percival Lowell became interested in the problem and wanted to search for a now possible ninth planet at his observatory in New Mexico. I think that he was the one who really first coined the term, “Planet X.” Lowell searched for 12 years, 1905-1916, until he died, without finding it.

The search resumed in 1929 when the then-director of the observatory assigned the task to a young, 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh. After a year of fruitless searching, Toubaugh found an object moving against the background of stars from two photographs he had taken in January of 1930. Pluto was discovered, Planet X, that was supposed to solve all the orbital problems.

A Third Planet X? — Nope, Just Fixing Neptune’s Mass

When Pluto was initially discovered, it was assumed to weigh in at several times Earth’s mass. However, estimates over subsequent decades were refined down, not up, and it was realized that Pluto could not account for Uranus’ orbit. The present-day mass estimate is about 20% Earth’s.

The search half-heartedly didn’t really continue for a mystery object that could explain planets’ orbits.

In 1989, the space probe Voyager 2 flew by Neptune. Calculations based on the orbital changes from that gravitational interaction were published in 1993 by Myles Standish, and they revised Neptune’s mass downward by 0.5%. This revised mass, when put into the calculations for the orbits of the outer planets, was then able to precisely account for Uranus’ orbit. No mystery object was needed, nor found, and as a result, nearly all astronomers today discount its existence.

Modern-Day “Planet Xs” (The Real Ones)

To be sure, I do not mean to imply that there are no more large objects out in the solar system. But “large” is always a relative term that needs to be qualified. The proton is gigantic relative to an electron. A sequoia tree is large relative to an oak. And Neptune is large relative to Pluto.

What I mean by “large” in this context is 100s to possibly 1000s of kilometers in diameter, icy bodies much like Pluto. These are the Kuiper Belt Objects, or at least the large members of the Kuiper Belt Objects. To-date, (January 2009), 4 are large enough such that the International Astronomical Union has termed them “Dwarf Planets” (Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumeamea). These objects are “large,” but they are smaller than our moon (our moon is 3,474 km in diameter). And, since density is related to volume which is the cube of a linear measurement, the actual mass of these objects is much smaller than that of a planet.

But, But, But … There Could Still Be Giant Things Out There!

Maybe. But they would have to be very far away from the 8 planets and inner Kuiper Belt Objects. Remember, even with the technology over 160 years ago, astronomers were able to calculate that Uranus, an object 19x farther away from the sun than Earth was being very slightly perturbed by an object 30x farther away from the sun than Earth. And these were both objects that weigh about a dozen times more than Earth – fairly small compared with what modern-day Planet Xers are claiming (that will be addressed in future posts).

Nothing in science is locked in stone, so-to-speak, and it’s impossible to prove a negative. However, keep in mind now that we can explain all the orbits of the planets with known, observed solar system objects. For there to be another object out there, it either has to be very small, or it has to be very far away. And when things are very far away, they take a very long time to move. Even a comet out by Jupiter heading towards us would take at least a year to get to Earth. And we could see it. The idea that there is a massive, planet-sized object that will hit or pass by Earth in just 4 years is ridiculous, unless you invoke the supernatural or physics that we don’t know about that can somehow shield even gravity.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have a historic basis for the present-day Planet X claims, as well as some preliminary information on why we “know” (as far as science can know anything) that there is no doomsday planet headed for us in 4 years, I will actually address the various fear-mongering premises that have been posited about Planet X, and how it is supposed to destroy Earth (or not?!), land ETs on Earth that want all our gold, or will cause a pole shift (another ridiculous idea that has its own problems), or whatever else people have invented throughout the past few decades.

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