UMass Undergraduates Hunt for Planet Nine

FCAD Scholars Spotlight

UMass Undergraduates Hunt for Planet Nine

Three undergraduates and their teaching assistant from Astro 341 secured observing time at the Perkins Telescope Observatory, a 1.8 meter telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. Under the supervision of Malena Rice (Yale University) and Connor Robinson (Alfred University) their mission is to locate the elusive Planet Nine which is thought to reside beyond Neptune and could allow astronomers to glean insight into the formation of our solar system.

By Moiz Khalil | February 29, 2024

The Observational Techniques II class (Astro 341) allows students to design and carry out an observational campaign to study an open question in astrophysics at the 1.8m telescope at the Perkins Telescope Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. In Spring 2023, three undergraduates from UMass Amherst, Scott Barrow, Sophie Booth, and Andrew Wright, were working on a project for Astro 341 that involved looking for Planet Nine, a potential undiscovered planet that is thought to inhabit the outskirts of our solar system. Due to a record snowfall during their observing run, the team was only able to observe for two nights. However, two nights of observing was simply not enough time to reach their science goals, and so, alongside their graduate mentor, Andrew Mizener (UMass Amherst), they submitted a proposal to the Perkins Telescope requesting additional observing time. Their goal was to thoroughly explore some of the possible locations Planet Nine could be hiding.

Perkins Telescope from inside the dome
Figure 1: Pictured above is the Perkins Telescope from inside the dome. From left to right includes UMass Amherst Astronomy Department members Andrew Wright (senior undergraduate), Andrew Mizener (graduate student), Sophie Booth (senior undergraduate), and Scott Barrow (senior undergraduate).

The proposal, which was Scott, Sophie, and Andrew’s first proposal ever, ended up being accepted and the four of them were granted an additional six nights to observe at the Perkins Telescope in Fall 2024. They were ecstatic and grateful for all of the support the UMass Faculty, Malena Rice (Yale University), and Connor Robinson (Alfred University), the project’s supervisors, gave them. Andrew Wright even recalled the whole experience to be, “a very good opportunity UMass offered”. Although the proposal was accepted, their follow-up observing run did not go without hiccups – there were wildfires running rampant which affected visibility – but even with the reduced visibility they still made the most of their observing run.

There has been plenty of debate on whether Planet Nine exists or not as astronomers have studied extreme trans-Neptunian objects (ETNOs), or satellites that orbit the Sun from beyond Neptune, and from a myriad of orbital effects astronomers have found that these ETNOs’ orbits are aligned in such a way that could be explained by the presence of a third massive body dubbed Planet Nine. Using theoretical constraints on Planet Nine’s orbit in combination with archival data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, Malena Rice was able to identify possible locations where Planet Nine could reside.

The group of undergraduates’ research involves confirming or denying Planet Nine’s existence in each of the possible locations Malena Rice has identified. Planet Nine is thought to be a 5-10 Earth-mass terrestrial planet which means it should only reflect light from the Sun, making it appear very dim. Using the Perkins Telescope, they obtained V-band (visible light) observations of potential Planet Nine locations sensitive enough to detect the faint elusive ninth planet candidate. So far, this team has not seen any evidence for the existence of Planet Nine although they are still in the process of analyzing their data. In the event that none of these observations show evidence in favor of Planet Nine’s existence, but instead show evidence of another TNO, this research would still hold value as it would provide the detection of the most distant TNO ever.

This small team of astronomers plans to analyze their data further and report their findings in the near future. In the meantime, they remain steadfast in their pursuit of uncovering the mysteries that lie at the edge of our solar system.

Perkins Telescope dome as viewed from outside
Figure 2: Pictured above is the Perkins Telescope dome as viewed from outside. The dome is located in Flagstaff Arizona. The Five College Astronomy Department is a partner in this telescope, with 8 nights per year available.

About the Author:

Moiz Khalil is a senior undergraduate studying astronomy at UMass Amherst. He currently studies the atmospheres and colors of brown dwarfs and wants to pursue a career in science communication. Outside of science, he enjoys listening to music and reading novels.