Over at Science Node, Lance Farrell writes that astrophysicists at the California Institute of Technology were reluctant to predict the existence of a new planet in our solar system, but NSF-powered supercomputer simulations left no other possibility.
Isaac Newton once said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Brian Malow’s analysis notwithstanding, no, Newton did not believe in giants. What Newton meant is that scientific discoveries seldom happen overnight, and the image of the lone scholar is a myth. Rather, progress is the product of teams toiling across decades, slowly building on the findings of others.
This collaborative method has been the slow and steady path to knowledge, and today includes a heavy reliance on computation. The recently postulated Planet 9 is a product of the collaboration Newton was talking about.
In 2003 Michael Brown, Chad Trujillo, and David Rabinowitz kickstarted Planet 9’s arc of discovery when they discovered Sedna, a small, reddish dwarf planet at the far reaches of our solar system. Spurred by this discovery, in late 2012 Trujillo and Scott Sheppard spied another small red planetoid in the inner Oort cloud using the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile.
The CTIO is part of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under cooperative agreement with the US National Science Foundation (NSF).
Trujillo and Sheppard confirmed their Sedna-like object in the fall of 2013 through further observations made with the Inamori Magellan Areal Camera and Spectrograph (IMACS) on the Magellan Baade telescope, at the Las Campanas Observatory, also in Chile. They corroborated these observations by reviewing archival images of the same celestial area taken in 2011 at the Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope, located at the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
Observing these Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) prompted Trujillo and Sheppard to note a peculiar clustering of some of these KBOs, objects that would not collect unless some unseen mechanism was forcing them to align.
It was from this starting point that Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown reanalyzed Trujillo and Sheppard’s observations to come up with an alternative explanation for this clustering — one they didn’t want to make, however.
Drawn to astrophysics like satellites to a planet, Batygin and Brown bring two very different approaches to their science. Brown, the senior researcher, (in)famous for demoting Pluto, makes predictions based on what can be seen. On the other hand, Batygin revels in cool calculations, and is comfortable making predictions based on theoretical physical dynamics.