A healthy dose of science: News from space

[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]  

Working out what science stories matter and which ones are just a flash in the pan can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a science background. UniVerse is here to help with our regular roundup of the biggest news in science, environment and health.

Philae Phone Home

Image courtesy of NASA.gov
Image courtesy of NASA.gov

In case you’ve been living under a rock since November, Philae is the probe sent out by the European Space Agency to explore Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (try saying that three times fast), and it made a triumphant landing on the comet – to much internet excitement – and began to beam back data before, er, vanishing.

According to ESA scientists, Philae bounced when it landed and is now in a dark ditch, where its solar cells can’t gather enough power to contact Earth. So the next time you think you screwed up by crashing a remote control helicopter into a hedge, remember Philae, lying in a ditch on a comet millions of miles from Earth.

It’s not all bad news, though – as Comet 67P gets closer to the sun, light will start to fall on Philae’s solar cells, and the scientists are confident that even if they can’t find it the probe will “call home” some time in May or June.

New planets beyond Pluto

Research published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters suggested that there are at least two undiscovered planets, at least as big as Earth, in our Solar System.

solar-system-11111_640The two new planets, if they exist, lie beyond Pluto, the dwarf planet thought to be the last significant body in our system. The evidence comes from a region of space full of floating space rocks known as “Extreme Trans-Neptunian Objects”, or Etnos. These rocks behave in a way which doesn’t quite add up without something big pulling on them beyond Pluto. From the exact deviations in their orbital paths, the scientists have deduced that the planets, if they exist, are at least the size of earth.

The lead scientist, Prof. Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, was quoted by the Spanish news service Sinc as saying: “This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the Etno, and we consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto.

“The exact number is uncertain, given that the data that we have is limited, but our calculations suggest that there are at least two planets, and probably more, within the confines of our solar system,” he said.

This isn’t the first time that people have looked for new planets at the edge of our system. Ever since Neptune was discovered in 1846 people have looked for new planetary bodies beyond it, because the orbits of the gas giants – Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune – weren’t quite what they thought they would be. They called this planet “Planet X”, which sounds like a comic book, but it’s a serious theory. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, people initially thought that it was Planet X, but it simply does not have enough mass to account for those orbital changes, sparking a brief search for a Tenth Planet. The Planet X theory was dropped in the 1990s when more detailed measurements revealed that the unexpected orbits were actually due to a miscalculation in the mass of Neptune. The concept, however, lives on, and this is the latest piece of research in an ongoing debate.

But you probably shouldn’t get too excited – even if they’re there, they’re only the size of Earth. They won’t have any of the conditions necessary for life, and even if they did, they’d be far too cold – that far away from the Sun, things are cold and dark. To give you an idea of exactly how cold Planet(s) X might be, Pluto has a mean surface temperature of around -229°C.



A healthy dose of science: News from space