Two New Planets Discovered?

In the past week or so, you may have seen
some click-baity headlines claiming to report the discovery of two new planets in our solar
system. They say things like “New Planets Found!”
and “SUPER EARTH Orbiting Our Sun!” But … you know us well enough by now to
know that we’re here to say … not so much. Or at least … not so fast? These reports aren’t hoaxes or Internet
rumors. They’re actually based on real observations, made by two teams of astronomers, who think
that they /may/ have found two, separate, previously unknown objects, far beyond Neptune. But, the astronomers themselves don’t know
for sure. And the papers in which they report their
findings haven’t been accepted for peer review or publication yet. And the astronomy community seems to mostly
be skeptical … to say the least. But let’s go over what we know. Both finds were made using the ALMA observatory
in Chile, which detects radio waves. In March 2014, one team of astronomers pointed
the telescopes at a region of space near a star called W Aquilae, and all seemed normal. Then, a month later, they looked again — and
noticed that one point of light had moved. When they took a third set of pictures in
May, it wasn’t visible anymore — possibly because it was just too dim at the time. Whatever it was, they decided to call it Gna
[pronounced NYA], after a Nordic goddess. Then, in July 2014, a second group — which
has one researcher in common with the first, an astronomer named Wouter [wow-ter, or possibly
vow-ter] Vlemmings — was observing a different area, this time near Alpha Centauri, the star
system that’s closest to ours. And again, nothing seemed weird — until they
took a second set of images in May 2015 and saw that one of the points of light was moving. They didn’t give this one a name, though. In both cases, the authors ran the numbers
and realized that the objects /could/ be big, previously unknown planets in our solar system. But with just these two sets of observations,
it’s hard to really know what they’re seeing. One possibility — and this is an important
one — is that these points of light might not exist at all. They could be examples of the data glitches
that sometimes show up when you’re using sensitive instruments. But usually, when these glitches happen, scientists
can identify what’s causing them. If that’s what’s going on here, the researchers
can’t figure out what’s behind them. And according to an interview that Vlemmings did
with Scientific American, neither could any of the other astronomers who work with ALMA,
when they were asked if they had any ideas. Now, even if they aren’t glitches, that
doesn’t necessarily mean that what the astronomers found are planets. If they’re actual, physical objects in space,
they could be any number of things. Because all the astronomers really know is how bright
they appear to be, and how fast they’re moving. From that, they’ve been able to calculate
a range of distances for these objects. And the farther away they are, the bigger they’d
have to be to look this bright. Which is why they /could/ each be the size of a planet. Or, in the case of the one in the direction
of Alpha Centauri, maybe even bigger. One option is that it’s a brown dwarf, a kind
of failed star, 3 trillion kilometers away. On the other hand, they could also be icy
worlds that are much closer to us. Gna, for example, could be about the size
of Neptune but 100 times farther away. Meanwhile, the other world could be a sort
of super-Earth, that’s 6 times more distant than Pluto. /Or/ it could just be super-small,
and hanging out somewhere between Saturn and Uranus. Now, it’s worth pointing out that ALMA’s
field of view is so tiny that the odds of finding /anything/ big by accident are infinitesimally
small. There’s a reason one of the papers has the
phrase “serendipitous discovery” in the title. So, what the researchers really need is more
data to help narrow down the possibilities. And with plenty of offers now rolling in,
to take another look at those areas with different instruments, it sounds like they’re going
to get it. But until then, we really can’t say if anything’s
been discovered at all. All we can say with certainty is that those
clickbaity headlines are just … clickbait. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Space News, and thanks especially to our patrons on Patreon who chat with us in google hangouts,
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