A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Vague hopes and just happenings

Last week, when writing about potential discoveries in 2008, I admitted to having some specific ideas, some vague hopes, and that some might just happen. I wrote about some of my specific ideas for the year. Here I’ll talk about the other two – and the much more common – types of discoveries.

The “vague hope” types of discovery are very different from the “specific idea”, or, to be more specific, the make-a-hypothesis-and-test-it types of discoveries favored in explanations of the scientific method in 8th grade classes.

The best example from my own past that I can give us this type of vague hope was the discovery of Eris itself (the Kuiper belt object larger than Pluto that caused the uproar over Pluto’s status and finally forced the demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet. You can read much more about Eris on my detailed site). When I started scanning the skies almost a decade ago looking for large objects in the outer solar system, I certainly didn’t know what specifically was going to be out there, but I knew that there was a not bad chance that we would find something bigger than Pluto eventually (though I will admit that at one point midway through the decade I contemplated declaring the search over, thinking we had found all there was to find of interest. One of my students eventually talked me out of it). On January 5th 2005 (3 years ago today, even though it feels like a much longer time ago to me), I finally spotted the object that we first called Xena -- then temporarily became named 2003 UB313 and finally became Eris -- moving very slowly past the stars on my computer screen. It’s not that we had had a hypothesis to prove, just a realization that if you search more of the sky than anyone else has since the invention of the computer and digital cameras, you will certainly find things that no one has before. Will the thing you find be bigger than Pluto? Maybe yes, maybe no, but, as long as you are hoping, you might as well hope in the direction of bigger.

Now to 2008. The survey of the skies that led to the discovery of Eris and the other dwarf planets ended more than a year ago when we finally had scanned almost all of the skies that can be seen from our telescope at Palomar Observatory. But after spending most of a decade searching the skies for newer and larger bodies, it was hard to actually quit. What to do? Start over again. But this time I am doing it with the knowledge gained from doing it the first time, so this time we are doing everything – I hope – right. In practice, the most important thing that this means is that we are extending the survey to find extremely distant objects that we would have missed the first time around.

Why? Vague hope. Or perhaps it is better called “directed hope.” From our discovery of Sedna, which spends most of its time far far away from the sun, we realized that there might well be many many objects out at those distances, and that some of them could be quite large indeed. By “large” here, I am talking about something perhaps even the size of Mercury or of Mars (hope. remember: the key here is hope). I certainly don’ t have a specific scientific hypothesis supported by equations and calculations that some such object is out there, just a realization that it plausibly could be and that no one has ever done a thorough search.

So that could be one very exciting answer for discoveries of 2008: a Mars-sized body orbiting at perhaps twice the distance of Eris. Amusingly, by the current IAU definition, such an object would still be called a dwarf planet, though it would be a dwarf bigger than some real planets. If we really did discover such a thing it would probably re-light the planet definition fire, and we would all get to watch astronomers begin arguing once again.

To be honest, I have to admit that I think finding such a beast is a bit of a long shot. The main reason is that even though I am pretty convinced that such large dwarf planets are out there floating in the same region occupied by Sedna, they are likely to be too far away for our modest telescope at Palomar Observatory to see. Really, we would have to get pretty luck. But again: directed hope. It just might be there, and we won’t know until we look.

Finally, some discoveries are the type that I said just happen, though, really, that is not quite the right phrase. No discover ever just happens, I don’t think, but, sometimes, while you’re looking for something else, or examining something just because you’re curious, or trying hard to understand one little detail of something that just doesn’t make sense to you, something will pop out that you had no idea was coming.

The discovery of Sedna was like this. We were scanning the skies hoping that we might find something bigger than Pluto, knowing that we were bound to find many things than no one had ever seen before, but we never anticipated anything like Sedna.

When I first saw Sedna I wasn’t even convinced it was real. It was so faint that I thought it might just be a recurring smudge on the pictures I was looking at. The first email I sent out to Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz, the two guys with whom I was working, said “Not that I think it’s actually real, but the thing I might have just found is really really far away and really really big.” It was true, which is why we are now looking for things even bigger and further away.

Sedna orbits in a region of space that astronomers expected to be essentially empty, so it really had never occurred to me that when we began hunting in the skies something like Sedna might show up in our snares. Sedna is smaller than Eris by perhaps 20-30% and thus smaller than Pluto, so it didn’t get nearly as much press coverage as the Eris discovery, but, of the two, Sedna is by far the much more interesting scientific discovery. Eris’s main importance is less in the scientific knowledge that something bigger than Pluto exists but much more in the cultural importance in that it was the discovery that finally drove home the fact that Pluto is not a unique oddball at the edge of the solar system but simply one of the largest members of a much more extensive population. But Sedna tells us something we never knew before. What? It is still not clear; we’re working hard to understand all that Sedna says, but by the time we are done I hope that Sedna is the beginning of an intricate story of the birth of sun in a crowded cluster of stars which eventually caused Sedna to be peeled out of the inner solar system to become part of this new still unnamed region beyond the Kuiper belt. Stay tuned. There are other possibilities for what it might mean. But whatever it turns out to mean will be something we never even considered when we first started looking across the sky.

What might we discover unexpectedly in 2008? There is no way I can tell, of course, but I can at least give some areas of possibility, because all of these accidental discoveries come about with a lot of hard work to make the accidents possible. If I had to place bets on what project is most likely to lead to something like this, I would have to again say the new sky survey. Anytime you are looking over vast areas of sky in ways that no one ever has before your chances of having a good accident are high. But that is not the only project my group and I are working on these days – we’re thinking about storms on Titan, giant collisions and icy atmospheres in the outer solar system and more – so one of the other projects may sneak in as a long-shot. Or something new may come along unexpectedly.

Happy third anniversary of the discovery of Eris, and hope for discoveries – expected, hoped for, and accidental in 2008.


  1. Nearly all (Eris, 2003EL61, 2005FY9,Sedna,..) dwarf planets (behind Pluto)
    have strange positions on their orbits. They are very close to perihelia or aphelia?!
    Isn't it due to projection of opposite motions of Sun (with indoor planets) -toward heavy object approaching perihelia -to their orbits.
    Orbit of Sedna (because is so far behind Pluto) especially so show us what direction that X object is,...
    Mike, isn't it mystery for you? Give us your explanation, point of view,...
    Pavel Smutny

  2. I am from Slovakia. There was (in July 2007) absolute temperature maximum during history of all measurements in Slovakia (40,3C) and in the most of Central European countries. Last 12 months were 3C above average. There are very often catastrophic floods, super strong blasts of winds (3years ago nearly whole High Tatras were deforested by such strong wind,...). Once there are periods of nearly catastrophic dry months, in the next months are floods. In such or in other forms there are big changes over the whole Globe. Climate scientiests had forecasted some years ago, that north ice cap would lost some big part of its area in 2040. Japan scientiests had found it is so in this summer, not in 2040. Why is it so?!
    There is clear significant amendment of man activities (deforestation, burning of fosil, non fosil, new big industrial areas covered by concrete, asphalt,...). But is it all?
    All new planetoids, planets have somehow eccentric orbits - their focuses are shifted circa 1bill. km. The most distant Sedna, Xena are even very close to perihelia, aphelia, Why?
    Isn't it sign, that something much massive is approaching us and it is close to its perihelia?
    Those shifts, shapes of paths so are after it only projection of our opposite motion toward X -to orbits of very distant objects,….?
    There are many historical artefacts what speak that we have here - in our sol. sys. minimum one very massive object with long periodicity-Senmut map, Dendera zodiac, Narmer palette, funeral banner from tomb of markiza Tai, Mayan codexes, Enuma Elish, Biblical texts from Book of Job,Texts from pyramids,...
    Global warming is not only on Earth but also on Mars,...-the same level of acceleration, big perturb. in orbits of moons of Uranus, retrograde motion of Neptune's moon Titan-signs also after sudden temperature change on one half of surface, doubled atmosferic pressure after some years...
    There is acceler. of shifts of motions of magnet. poles on Earth, but also on Saturn,...results, graphs of GISP, Vostok projects-regular circa 1500 years intervals sharp peaks during last 40000 years,...
    Accelerating Solar activity-max. per. 8000 years now?! Jupiter in aphelia in 2011, the strongest solar maximum per last 400 years - forecasted on 2011, 2012 even by official astronomers.
    Sun's axis is also approx. in plain pointing on Orion,...Sun's, Moon;s eclipses are in March, September now - around equinoxes, what show that also knots of Moon's path /main axes of Moons orbit show on Orion,..Eclipses (in 2011,2012 ) will be during end of December and close to Venus transit time!
    As of Feb. 6, Pioneer 10 was about 92.12 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun and headed towards the constellation Taurus.The discrepancy found that Pioneer 10 and 11 were each about 240,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) closer to the Sun than they should be according to the current understanding of gravity.
    Pioneers slowing (400,000km, or 1000x more!?) when these probes are circa 14mld. km from us show, that gravity of that body (X) causing this disproportion is 10x mass of Earth or even 30mass of Jupiter?! Why is source of that extra gravity pointing to Sun? It is so, because X is now much more closer to Sun than are Pioneers now!
    Hurricanes frequency, their power acceleration in last years, increasing number of floods, super strong winds, tornados, temperature extremes-anomalies, growing number of London Thames Barrier closures due to extreme surges,...
    and many other facts speak that we have in solar system not only tenth Xena, but also something much heavier till 25 Jupiters-maybe micro black hole?!,black dwarf star,...?!
    and that objects is approaching perihelia,..
    I made detailed simulations in WinOrsa and they show, that it is possible!
    what do you think about? hamops1.szm.sk Pavel Smutny
    at 10:59AM Saturday on September 22, 2007, RNDr. Pavel Smutny said:

    People too much trust to official scientiests. Look on Venus cycles-Mayan Codexes handle with them preciously. There are enough written messages about what happened circa 11500 years ago, 13000 ago.
    Plato, Menetho,..spoke about it too, they mentioned exact date (9500B.C.), what coincidence with GISP2 data, graphs- it is written in ice core too (Gisp2, Vostok projects). North pole shifted 15-20 degree, mamoths were frozen to -70C, but with subtropical, savannah food in stomaks,....Big earthquakes, vulcanoes explosions - coincidence with Venus cycles/transits (Krakatoa-1882,416 A.D.).
    Scientiests had also found that super strong earthquakes in Mediterranian area (Lebanon,..) have periodicity 1200-1700years-what agree with Planet X-Nibiru periodicity,...
    Flood is very precisely described in Genesis, there is Exodus, there are also Jesus forecasts about end of days/- what is described over there-it support X theory,...
    People think, that X if such planet exist must significantly perturb orbits of planets, it must be clearly visible.
    Yes it is so, but only when X is close to perihelia. Deformations on orbits of planetoids, of Pluto - offic. scientiests considered to be normal, but it is stupidity.
    Look on Jupiter, Venus- how massive and close are these planets to Earth and what are perturbancies caused by these planets on Earth,...too small. X is 2x farther then Jupiter now, if X will be in perihelia in 2012,....
    People also know too little about various secret projects, researches, labs. There are many scientiests involved, but we don't know results of such researches, though we common people pay it.
    There are only small pieces of informations what were given to public, or escaped incidentally,...
    for example those infos from ACIO project (wingmakers.com) about BST technologies,....jumps into various causal points of time,-projects going behind-advancing Philadelphia experiment-Montauk project,....
    they-Dr. Neruda, Anderson speak about 2011-point where is difficult to go behind,....there are pictures-painting describing very probably arrival of X to perihelia,....
    official point of view of usas government is," if there will be some body endangering Earth we will prevent people from to know it, due not to panic,...bla bla, bla" It was published in ofic. newspapers.
    Look on for example:
    web page of Mike Brown-main discowerer of big planetoids in recent time.
    The most of big planetoids, of Pluto are very close to perihelia or aphelia??!!

    http://www.mujweb.cz/spolecnost/bode alsohere it isdescr. how are synchronised orbit of planets and of X
    http://www.mujweb.cz/spolecnost/sedna look here for explanation of shifts of planets
    Pioneers 10 and 11 have signif. discrepances, delays from forecasted positions, it is on:
    there are some data but given with very unclear and not properly given reasons for dicrepancies,delays,....
    There should be many big snowbals-planetoids, protoplanets on very prolongated eliptic orbits, or on circa circular orbits with radiuses much longer than that of Pluto,...
    There are many dwarf stars, jovial planets, rests after star colissions,... what were ejected from mother planetary nebulas, from orbits at stars after supernova explosions,...
    It is forecasted in the last time that there are many more brown, t- dwarf stars then normal sun-like stars, so where are these?. They are nearly invisible in space among bright stars. It is possible only with super strong telescopes to discover them and with bit of good luck. So also in the last years there were discovered next brown,..stars close to Sun in distances to 20LY,....
    X, Nemesis are not unprobable but very probable objects,....very cold and so nearly invisible.

  3. Nearly all (Eris, 2003EL61, 2005FY9,Sedna,..) dwarf planetoids - Pluto incuded too are somehow very close to their perihelias, aphelias. Isn't it strange, worthy to speak about, think about?!
    Incomig big global,..changes are here,...don't you see any coherence,...