A team of researchers have published a new theory explaining why objects on the edge of the Solar System like Sedna - classified as a large minor planet - have such weird, giant circular orbits. "We can solve a lot of these problems by just taking into account that question". For some years now, researchers have speculated that something is pulling these objects away from the plane where the system's major planets are orbiting, giving them a downward inclination of 30 degrees.
It's their collective gravity acting in concert that solves numerous puzzles posed thus far, Ann-Marie Madigan, a C.U. Boulder assistant professor and also author of the study, said.
Some scientists have theorized that a planet about 10 times the size of Earth in the outer solar system is responsible for perturbing the TNOs' orbits. How they got to the outer solar system on their own is an ongoing mystery. Dubbed Planet Nine, this mysterious body could actually be a cluster of asteroids and other space rocks that are firing comets into the Solar System.
The work revealed that icy objects beyond Neptune move around the sun just like the hands of a clock, with smaller bodies moving quickly than bigger ones such as Sedna - a minor planet that takes 11,000 years to complete a single orbit around the sun.
"He came into my office one day and says, 'I'm seeing some really cool stuff here, '" Madigan said. Unlike that unique ninth planet, Sedna and other separated gigantic, orbits that bring them no place near huge planets like Jupiter or Neptune.
Madigan and team weren't exactly looking to explain the unusual orbits of these bodies, but when Jacob Fleisig, the lead author of the study, ran a series of simulations to study the dynamics of these bodies, they were totally surprised.
"The picture we have in our head is a lot of little moons floating around the solar system, interacting with comets", Madigan told reporters yesterday during a news conference, notes Space.com.
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"These orbits crash into the bigger body, and what happens is those interaction will change its orbit from an oval shape to a more circular shape".
In the latest study, presented this week at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, astronomers looked at new models depicting how the massive swarm of objects that make up the Kuiper Belt orbit the sun. And the fact that the orbits all tilt the same way - neatly explained by Planet Nine - can not be explained by the collective gravity hypothesis.
The jostling of these asteroids and space junk might have led to other effects like regularly directing comets into the inner solar system - some of which could have headed toward Earth.
The findings may also provide clues around another phenomenon: the extinction of the dinosaurs.
"While we're not able to say that this pattern killed the dinosaurs", Fleisig said, "it's tantalizing".
According to the team, the dinosaur-killing asteroid that hammered our planet 65 million years ago, wiping out almost 75 percent of life on Earth, could have been sent on its collision path by the periodic comet showers that turned up in Fleisig's computer model.