Our cherished place in the universe

February 14, 2016

Could a new planet be lurking in the furthest reaches of our solar system, just waiting to be properly “discovered”? Two astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) claim so.

They have used high tech computer-based modelling to estimate that a new planet – 5,000 times the mass of Pluto – is orbiting in a ring of rocky objects beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt. The planet is so far away that it takes between 10,000 and 20,000 years to orbit the Sun. Powerful telescopes – they hope – will detect it directly within five years.

Already dubbed “Number 9”, this planet would be only the third (after Neptune and Pluto) to be found since ancient times. Pluto was the original ninth planet, but it has recently had its status downgraded, poor lonely rock.

“We could have stayed quiet,” Dr Mike Brown, one of the scientists, is reported to have said. “And quietly spent the next five years searching the skies ourselves and hoping to find it. But I would rather somebody find it sooner, than me find it later.”

This sincerity and willingness to place his own needs behind the importance of the study of astrophysics is commendable and humbling.

Humans have always been fascinated by space and the stars that glitter in our heavens. No wonder our ancestors worshipped them as Gods; we creatures of the scientific age still cannot get enough.

The attraction of the vastness of space lies partly in its nebulousness; we can never hope to know it or to explore it fully, yet we cannot ignore it. Currently, astronomers promise us a vision of five planets – Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter – strung out in a line stretching across the horizon like a string of diamonds. This is a once-in-a-decade occurrence, so our forebears must have known this heavenly tiara also. One wonders what they made of it. Perhaps it signalled good fortune, an opposite omen to the bad luck that a comet was often though to signify.

The view upwards may be immense and enthralling, but the greatest gift we gain from the universe is perhaps how it allows us to interpret our own Earth. The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield – a three-time visitor to space – says: “The world, when you look at it, it just can’t be random. I mean, it’s so different than the vast emptiness that is everything else, and even all the other planets we’ve seen, at least in our solar system, none of them even remotely resemble the precious life-giving nature of our own planet.”

Studying the stars may make us aware of how small our place in the universe is. But regardless of size, it is a privilege to be here. A privilege to cherish.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation