By Benjamin Vermette

 The above is an artist's depiction of the view from "Planet Nine". Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The above is an artist's depiction of the view from "Planet Nine". Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Is there a 9th planet in our solar system?

Caltech researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown have found evidence of a ninth planet in our solar system. 

The planet, dubbed Planet Nine, would have a mass 10 times that of Earth and take 10,000 to 20,000 years to make a single revolution around the Sun, hence its late discovery (which shouldn’t be called a discovery yet). Planet Nine would be orbiting the Sun 20 times further out than does Neptune – the outermost planet –, if it exists, and on a highly-elliptical orbit.

Note that the planet was not observed directly: strange behaviours of some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) lead to the conclusion that a ninth planet might be required. "Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there," says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science. "For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system's planetary census is incomplete."

Evidence and a mathematical model was enough to get some astronomers – amateurs and professionals – started on a quest for the observation of Planet Nine.

The whole story started in 2014, when a student of Mike Brown found out that orbital features of some KBOs (small celestial objects beyond Pluto) were similar and thus suggested the presence of a small planet to explain this phenomenon.

Brown, an observer, took the problem to Batygin, who is a theorist, and for a year and a half they worked the problem out. Brown observed the sky as well as the KBOs while Batygin worked out what was possible on the physical standpoint using math and physics. “I would bring in some of these observational aspects; he would come back with arguments from theory, and we would push each other. I don't think the discovery would have happened without that back and forth," says Brown.

 Shown here is the possible orbit of Planet Nine along with other distant bodies of our solar system with highly-eccentric elliptical orbits. Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) 

Shown here is the possible orbit of Planet Nine along with other distant bodies of our solar system with highly-eccentric elliptical orbits. Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) 

Note the irony: Mike Brown, potential discoverer of Planet Nine (if it gets officially discovered), was one of the active astronomers who led to Pluto losing its ‘planet’ status, hence his Twitter handle @plutokiller.

Even if the scientific community isn’t sure the planet exists yet, Brown showed a little confidence on his Twitter profile: “OK, OK, I am now willing to admit: I DO believe that the solar system has nine planets,” he wrote.

Evidence is evidence. Astronomers worldwide are on it: stay tuned for facts.


New Canadian vision system for the ISS

On January 7 the Government of Canada awarded a $1.7-million contract to Neptec Design Group Ltd. of Ottawa, Ontario, to design and build a new high-technology space vision system for the International Space Station (ISS).

Mounted on Dextre, the vision system will be used to support the inspection and maintenance of the ageing structure of the ISS, as small meteorites and space debris regularly hit the Station. It’s not the first time that Neptec’s vision systems are used in space: it previously designed a laser camera system that, mounted on Canadarm2, was used to inspect the tiles of the retired US Space Shuttle while it was in space.

Using a combination of three sensors – an infrared and a high-definition camera, as well as a 3D laser – the vision system will also assist spacecrafts as they dock with the ISS.

 Showing Dextre on the right held by Canadarm2 and holding the vision system (www.asc-csa.gc.ca). 

Showing Dextre on the right held by Canadarm2 and holding the vision system (www.asc-csa.gc.ca). 

As the system will launch to the ISS in 2020, its imagery will be available to the public, offering a new view of the station no one ever saw before.

“The Government of Canada is pleased to contribute this new technology that combines these strengths, while giving the world a new vantage point on the International Space Station," said the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

This investment enforces Canada’s role as a reliable space-technology innovator and as a driving force of the world’s space activities.


SpaceX failed to land their rocket on a barge-ship

The promising private company SpaceX, owned by ambitious billionaire Elon Musk, succeeded in landing its rocket on a steady landing platform in Cape Canaveral on December 21st (Refer to my previous post on January 15 for details on this.)

But that was ‘easy’, they wanted a more challenging test: landing their rocket on a drone-like barge-ship, sailing freely on the sea, for example. 

On January 17, after flawlessly launching and deploying the Jason-3 ocean-mapping satellite, the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket called the ball. Hovering through 3- to 4-meter waves, the football-field-sized landing platform waited patiently for the booster to perform the final ‘touchdown’. 

The booster found the platform, deployed its landing legs and landed for a couple seconds, and then this happened. The linked video, posted on Elon Musk's instagram page, shows footage of Falcon 9's landing attempt.

This was the third time SpaceX tried to land the Falcon on a ship, and it was almost a charm.


As Musk said on his Instagram and Twitter accounts, a defective collet might have been the mishap’s cause. Collets are intended to secure the locking of the landing legs. As the leg was not locked tightly enough, it could not support the aircraft's weight, and down it went. The root cause may be that condensation from heavy fog at launch got in there and then froze when it got colder in the upper atmosphere, perhaps cracking the collet.

This is a hypothesis, but one thing is for sure: “Definitely harder to land on a ship. Similar to [land on] an aircraft carrier [versus on the ground]: much smaller target area [on the ship], [which is] also translating & rotating,” Musk tweeted.

It’s still a success to me. Launching a rocket at high speeds and making it deploy a satellite takes some innovation, especially when it’s a private company. But making the rocket flip-over in space and come back to Earth from more than 100 km of altitude, making it slow down and find the barge using its fins to control itself and deploy its landing legs is indeed a success to me.

“It’s a freakin’ technological triumph that they can get anywhere near a landing,” wrote Phil Plait, blogger for Slate.


The Dream Chaser has won the ISS resupply contract award!

On January 14, after delaying the announcement multiple times, NASA finally awarded the second round contract of resupplying the International Space Station (ISS) to three commercial cargo companies. The first round contract was awarded to SpaceX and Orbital ATK in 2008.

The Dream Chaser, previously designed to be a human-carrying spacecraft, was adapted to be unmanned for the possible future cargo missions to the ISS, in case it won the second round contract. And it did!

This amazingly designed spaceship, owned by Sierra Nevada Corporation, will join SpaceX and Orbital ATK, the two other recipients, in 2019, date when the contract will begin service.

Designed by a 50-year-old soviet space shuttle mockup, the Dream Chaser will deliver up to 5500 kg of cargo to the ISS per trip. It will launch on top of a rocket, dock with the station, and when it’s ready it will detach from the orbiting lab and perform a runway landing, just like the American Space Shuttle did.

 Image of the cargo version of the Dream Chaser docked to the ISS. (SNC)

Image of the cargo version of the Dream Chaser docked to the ISS. (SNC)

Since the Dream Chaser has never flown into orbit, Sierra Nevada said they would drop the spacecraft from a helicopter for it to perform a landing demonstration in the coming months.

Originally, the contract was intended to only have two recipients, but having three is more advantageous. “One of the considerations from an operational standpoint with ISS is it’s really important to have more than one supply chain, and multiple offerers means that at any given time, the sequence of flights could be one Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, Orbital ATK, so if you lose one, you have the ability for another one being right after it from a dissimilar redundancy, or a different supplier, so that’s a big help to us,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The contract provides a minimum of six flights per selectee, from 2019 to 2024, but “it is likely we will buy more than 18 flights, so we have three winners, and if we need more than 18 flights, then we’ll talk about what happens on those flights,” said Shireman.

The exact value of each recipient’s contract is not precisely known, but Orbital ATK said in a press conference that its six original flights are valued at $1.2 to $1.5 billion USD.