How we discovered 840 minor planets beyond Neptune – and what they can tell us
Dr Michele Bannister looks at exciting new discoveries made by the Outer Solar System Origins Survey.
Our solar system is a tiny but wonderfully familiar corner of the vast, dark universe – we have even been able to land spacecraft on our celestial neighbours. Yet its outer reaches are still remarkably unmapped. Now we have discovered 840 small worlds in the distant and hard-to-explore region beyond Neptune. This is the largest set of discoveries ever made, increasing the number of distant objects with well known paths around the sun by 50%.
These little icy worlds are important as they help us tell the solar system’s history. They can also help us test the idea that there’s a yet unseen planet lurking in the outer solar system.
Our planetary system as we see it today is not as it formed. When the sun was newborn, it was surrounded by a massive disk of material. Encounters with tiny, growing planets – including some of the worlds we’ve just discovered – moved the giant planets outward from the sun until they settled into their present locations. The growing planets, on the other hand, went everywhere, scattering both inward and outward.
Planetary migration also happened in far away systems around many other stars. Fortunately, the celestial bodies in our own planetary system are comparatively close by, making it the only place where we can see the intricate details of how migration happened. Mapping the minor planet populations that are left over from the disk lets us reconstruct the history of how the big planets were pushed into place.
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Article originally appeared in The Conversation.