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Scientists Discover 139 New “Planets” in Our Solar System

While the coronavirus wave is dominating the global news headlines, a team of
space scientists at the University of Pennsylvania (UOP) have discovered 139 minor planets
— too small to be a actual a planet, but not a comet or rock either — orbiting the Sun beyond
Neptune, as thoroughly detailed in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal (AJ)
last week.

The supposed “trans-Neptunian Objects” (TNOs), the most well known of which is Pluto,
orbits stellar bodies in the Kuiper belt, a region in our Solar System that extends beyond our
system’s eight real planets. stretching outward by some 50 astronomical units — that’s fifty
times the distance between the Earth and the Sun — the Kuiper belt is far larger than the
asteroid belt.

The finding could uncover new methods to hunt for the mysterious Planet Nine, a hypothetical
ninth planet in our Solar System that many suspect to be generating strange gravitational
effects on a group of trans-Neptunian objects beyond Neptune’s orbit.

“There are lots of ideas about giant planets that used to be in the solar system and aren’t there anymore, or planets that are far away and massive but too faint for us to have noticed yet,” co-lead and University of Pennsylvania professor Gary Bernstein said in a statement.

The scientists used details collected by the Dark Energy Survey (DES), an international
collaborative try, sent in space in 2013, to map hundreds of millions of galaxies. In January,
the project finished six years of data collection.

DES wasn’t explicitly set up to look for TNOs, but rather to learn about galaxies and
supernovas — so its researchers had to improvise.

“Dedicated TNO surveys have a way of seeing the object move, and it’s easy to track them
down,” lead astronomer and graduate student Pedro Bernardinelli said in the statement. “One
of the key things we did in this paper was figure out a way to recover those movements.”

The scientists undergo a dataset of seven billion possible objects identified by DES software,
which they first cut down to twenty two million “transient” objects, revealing they only appear
for a short period of time.

Astronomers then filtered those down to 400 candidates that were discovered over at least six
nights of observation. By assembling multiple images, they were able to prove the existence
of 316 TNOs, adding 245 existing discoveries and 139 new objects.

They’re anticipating their new way of discovering TNOs could be used to find more of them
using many astronomy surveys, such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, currently under
construction in Chile, that will be able to look even further than the Dark Energy Survey (DES).

Many of the programs we’ve developed can be easily applied to any other large datasets, such as what the Rubin Observatory will produce,” said Bernardinelli.

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