What's up to four times as big as Jupiter, is so distant that astronomers haven't been able to find it in more than 80 years, and is the stuff of legends and conspiracy theories?
"Planet X." A mystery object that most astronomers would rather not discuss. Whenever a discussion of the possibility that the massive planet exists does flare up, most astrophysicists and professional astronomers treat the subject with the same respect they give to UFOs.
But now some scientists think they have actually found the elusive Planet X. And if they have, many that have been debunking it for years are like to experience conniption fits.
Astrophysicists have compiled evidence that a gigantic gas giant—similar to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—may be lurking at the very edge of the solar system in a region of space called the Oort Cloud.
The Cloud itself is huge-a sphere with a radius of six trillion miles that reaches one-quarter of the way to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.
Astronomers have named the mammoth planet "Tyche" after the Greek goddess that ruled ancient cities fortunes. Each day that passes more of them believe the titanic world may truly exist.
One that thinks it does exist is Professor Daniel Whitmire from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. During an interview with the Independent he stated that "If it does, [fellow astrophysicist Prof John Matese] and I will be doing cartwheels. And that's not easy at our age."
Whitmire believes the acquired observational data might be all that's needed to prove once an for all that Tyche does exist. He thinks it can be proven from analysis that will take less than two years.
The enthusiastic professor believes Tyche would be comprised mostly of hydrogen and helium gas. Taking an educated guess, he hypothesizes that it would be much like Jupiter, although magnitudes larger, and might well have spots, rings, and clouds. "You'd also expect it to have moons. All the outer planets have them."
If Tyche does exist, its orbit about the sun is many thousands of times more distant than Earth's orbit.
The Oort Cloud contains billions of objects including comets. Those far flung visors come zooming from the Cloud and enter the inner solar system to slingshot around the sun before whipping back out towards their home on the fringe of the solar system. For some time it's been hypothesized that the region may contain one or more gigantic planets.
The ancient Syrian legends of a planet they called "Nibaru" has fueled much speculation the last few decades amongst space enthusiasts and ancient astronaut believers that such a world enters our part of the system every several thousands of years causing destruction and terror before leaving.
Planet X is similar to Nibaru, but is not a rogue planet. It stays out on the fringes—in this case the Oort Cloud.
But it might still be potentially destructive. Some astronomers think a massive body like that changes the orbits of the comets and flings them out randomly towards the sun.
The comet connection is strong as both Whitmire and Matese deduced the existence of Tyche from the angle that comets were being ejected from the Cloud. Since 1898 about 20 percent of the comets that entered the system were higher above the ecliptic than expected.
If Tyche—Planet X—is real, then the debunkers will have to lick their metaphorical wounds. But then so will the starstruck Nibaru conspiracy buffs, because the gas giant won't be paying a visit to the vicinity of Earth anytime into the far distant future. It's staying put in the Cloud.
Tyche doesn't make house calls.