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An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Night Sky

Turn off or shield your outside lights downward 
Left unshielded, they ruin the starry night sky and annoy your neighbors. Light glare going upward doesn’t help deter crime. Keep the night sky available for everyone.

July 2017 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

I hope by now anyone traveling to see the total eclipse in its full glory has made their plans for a campsite or tuned up the ol’ RV. On August 21, from about 10:20 to 11:45 a.m. in central New Mexico, we will have a good show with about eighty percent of the sun covered. To see it, you will need specialized glasses to protect your eyes, or you can make a simple pinhole camera to see the event ( or eclipse/make-pinhole-projector.html).

Easy come, easy go—Planet 9

Astronomer Mike Brown, the man who “killed Pluto” as the ninth planet, is attempting to expand the solar system again to include nine planets. His discoveries of several trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), including Eris, Sedna, and Orcus, along with 33 other small bodies orbiting outside Neptune, caused Pluto’s demise.

In January of 2016, Brown, and fellow astronomer Konstantin Batygin, announced that a study of the orbits of Sedna and five other TNOs indicated they were being manipulated by the immense gravity of a planet possibly ten times larger than Earth. Since then, there have been several naysayers arguing against Planet 9, and since nobody has actually seen the planet in their telescopes, it seems reasonable to call Brown’s calculations a fluke of nature.

A study started in 2013, The Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS), has looked at more than eight hundred TNOs discovered since the demise of Pluto. This study finds that there is no significant “clustering of orbits,” a bunching of objects that loop in elliptical orbits with the end closest to the sun all clustering near the same point in space, of the TNOs. Brown’s group, they say, is an illusion based on a small sample.

Their conclusion is: “OSSOS can not prove, or rule out, the existence of the hypothesized “Planet 9” (a planet more than ten times the mass of Earth and on an orbit that extends beyond five hundred astronomical units). The idea of a dwarf planet, maybe as big as Mars, is still entirely possible. The OSSOS discoveries and observational simulations (using our extremely well-calibrated survey) substantially weaken the evidence that has been used to justify the need for an additional very massive planet in our solar system.”

Who knows if Planet 9 is real or imagined? The search with large telescopes is underway looking at a patch of sky near Orion where Brown has predicted it to be. It will not be easy; astronomers equate the search to looking for a dark BB against a black background eighteen miles away.

Planet 10 to the rescue

Forget Planet 9; astronomers now believe there is a tenth planet lurking in the outskirts of our solar system. Well, maybe we should call it Planet Eight-and-a-half. It would be closer to the sun than the supposed Planet 9 and only about the size of Mars.

Evidence for this TNO comes from University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory after looking at small objects in the Kuiper Belt. On average, these objects should orbit in the same plane as the planets, yet an inordinate number seem to be swing above and below the planetary plane, skewing the average.

Astronomers say these Kuiper Belt objects are too far from the supposed Planet 9 (some 500 to 900 AU—1 AU is the times the distance from the Earth to the Sun) to be influenced by it; therefore, there must be a planetary mass object orbiting closer in to the sun. Something the size of Mars could influence these objects about 100 AU out.

This search will not be any easier than the Planet 9 search. NASA has said that the region "is probably populated with hundreds of thousands of icy bodies larger than 62 miles across and an estimated trillion or more comets." Being a small planet, it may take the advanced Large Synoptic Survey Telescope to find Planet 10. That telescope is not scheduled to be operational until 2020.

It may take some time, but it seems our solar system will be getting larger and including new family members in the near future.

The Milky Way:

If you are awake about 11:45 in the evening, look overhead for the river of stars named the Milky Way—our home galaxy. If the sky is dark enough, you can enjoy the fine detail of its stars and dust clouds forming a dark void against the background. Unfortunately, in the light glare of the city, forget seeing anything of the Milky Way. Near the cities, you may just be able to make out a blob of stars crossing the sky from northeast to southwest.

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