Drafting an atlas of our planetary neighborhood

An object over 132 billion miles away will help locate far-off, frigid worlds. At the Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS), a multinational team works every New Moon to peer into the depths of space.

Last fall the group found the Trans-Neptunian object (TNO) L-91, with a remarkable orbit of around 20,000 years. The far off discovery is baffling team members.

The object’s orbit is significant, but could be impacted by Neptune or the undiscovered but fabled Planet Nine.

“We found it as part of our routine imaging with OSSOS,” said Queen’s University Belfast researcher Michele Bannister.  She’s the astrophysicist responsible for introducing the world to the chilly world.

The object could be useful in proving the “gravitational shepherding” of an additional planet, she added. L-91 is the largest semi-major axis yet detected, and are rarely observed, according to Bannister’s presentation.

Knowing an orbit tells us where to next point the telescope,” Bannister said.

L-91 is the first known solar system object that transits the Oort Cloud—the frozen limit of our solar system. Moving between the OC and Kuiper Belt—home to Pluto—could point to a distant star influencing L-91’s place in the solar system. She also disputed the notion it was affected by the mysterious Planet Nine, but acknowledged the object’s discovery could help prove the elusive planet’s existence.

“Almost everything in the Kuiper Belt are quite small objects, less than a few hundred kilometers in diameter,” Bannister said. “They are so small that they can’t nudge around each other’s orbits. The biggest world we’ve found with OSSOS is a dwarf planet called 2015 RR245, which is about 700 km (434 mi) across.”

All the composite images and massive amounts of data also morph into a more fluid pursuit: Bannister’s poetry.

“We’re deciding how and where to explore to understand the history of our own little home in the Universe,” Bannister said. “The data requires both expertise and a degree of artistry to interpret. We’re exploring with light that left the Sun, was reflected off the surface of an icy world at the edge of the Solar System, came back a day later to fall into the mirror of a huge and lovingly cared-for telescope on a precious mountain, and ended by letting a tiny current flow in a very sensitive recorder, which flipped a bit in a computer file from 0 to 1. From such tiny scraps, we end up being able to put together how the planets moved, billions of years ago.”

Planet Nine

The object could be lurking beyond Neptune, and in January 2015 astronomers searching for the massive object announced offered more substantial evidence in support of an additional planet. The lurking giant could event toss the solar system off balance.

Michele T. Bannister is tasked with discovering new distant worlds in OSSOS surveys. She also helps program commands for the operation’s telescope, Canada-France-Hawaii and conducts orbit analysis and image survey simulations.

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