10 Solar System Mysteries That Baffle Our Best Scientists

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Even though we’ve already told you about the mysteries of our solar system here, here, and here, we’re back with more mysterious sights and sounds that baffle our best scientists. At least one of them has fueled conspiracy theories, but that’s just part of the fun.

Planet X

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As recently as 2014, scientists were claiming that Planet X, a planet hypothesized to lie beyond Pluto in our solar system, did not exist. But in early 2015, researchers changed their tune. After analyzing the orbits of 13 extreme trans-Neptunian objects (ETNOs)—distant bodies like dwarf planets Sedna and 2012 VP113 that orbit the Sun beyond Pluto—some scientists now believe that at least two more planets bigger than Earth, Planet X and Planet Y, may really be out there.Theoretically, the ETNO orbits should be an average of 150 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. An AU equals about 150 million kilometers (90 million mi), the distance between Earth and the Sun. These orbits are also predicted to be inclined at about zero degrees.

But the theory doesn’t agree with reality. The 13 ETNOs have actual orbits with an average distance between 150 and 525 AU and inclinations averaging around 20 degrees.“This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the ETNOs, and we consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto,” said lead researcher Carlos de la Fuente Marcos. “The exact number is uncertain . . . but our calculations suggest that there are at least two planets, and probably more, within the confines of our solar system.”Of course, there could be other explanations for these unexpected orbits. But given that we didn’t think anything was beyond Pluto in our solar system until 1992 and we only recently found 2012 VP113, no one can say with certainty that more planetary bodies don’t exist in the outer reaches of our solar system. Our technology isn’t advanced enough to detect everything yet.

Mysterious Bright Spots On Ceres

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Previously, we told you that Feature 5, a bright spot on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres, might be a cryovolcano, a water-erupting volcano that may indicate an underground ocean. Now, newer pictures from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft are adding to the mystery.First, we saw another bright spot, called “Feature 1,” on Ceres’s surface. But the two spots looked different when viewed in thermal images. Feature 1 showed up as a dark spot in infrared images, meaning it was cooler than the area surrounding it. However, Feature 5 didn’t appear at all in thermal images, so its temperature was the same as its surroundings. We don’t know what this means yet. It may be that the spots are made of different material or the ground surrounding them is different.The next round of images only deepened the mystery. Instead of only two spots, we found that the spots are actually several separate bright points of various sizes that have a central cluster.

The brightest spots are contained in a crater about 90 kilometers (55 mi) wide.“The bright spots in this configuration make Ceres unique from anything we’ve seen before in the solar system,” said Christopher Russell, who leads the Dawn mission. “The science team is working to understand their source. Reflection from ice is the leading candidate in my mind, but the team continues to consider alternate possibilities, such as salt.”Ceres is also missing the large surface craters that we expected to see. “When we compare the size of [Ceres’s] craters with those we see on [protoplanet] Vesta, we are missing several larger craters,” said Russell. “That’s something we’ve got to learn more about.”However, Ceres shows more evidence of activity like landslides and flows on its surface than Vesta does. Ceres also has a steep mountain rising from a rather smooth surface.

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