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Ninth planet

A previously unknown giant planet may have been discovered lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system, US scientists announced on Wednesday.

Nicknamed Planet Nine, the object “has a mass about 10 times that of Earth” and follows a “bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the distant solar system,” said a statement by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

“In fact, it would take this new planet between 10,000 and 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around the Sun.”

The report was published in the Astronomical Journal.

Researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown say have not yet observed the object directly.

Rather, they found it through mathematical modeling and computer simulations.

The presumed planet has about 5,000 times the mass of Pluto, and scientists believe its gravity has affected the motion of dwarf planets in the outer solar system, essentially perturbing celestial bodies in the field of icy objects and debris beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.

“Like a parent maintaining the arc of a child on a swing with periodic pushes, Planet Nine nudges the orbits of distant Kuiper Belt objects such that their configuration with relation to the planet is preserved,” explained CalTech in a statement.

– Pluto Killer –

Brown, one of the co-authors on the paper, was a leading force in the downgrade of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet in 2006.

He and colleagues had found a dwarf planet called Eris that was more massive than Pluto, and a potential candidate for a 10th planet.

But when the International Astronomical Union decided in 2006, to issue a new definition of “planet,” neither Eris nor Pluto made the cut.

“OK, OK, I am now willing to admit,” said Brown, who goes by @plutokiller on Twitter.

“I DO believe that the solar system has nine planets.”

But how could astronomers go so long without realizing another planet was out there?

Brown and colleagues say Planet Nine could have been cast off during the early formation of the solar system, when four major cores grabbed up the gas around them and formed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Perhaps Planet Nine represented a fifth core, that may have gotten too close to Jupiter or Saturn and been ejected into its current, distant orbit, said Brown.

A host of powerful telescopes are currently hunting for Planet Nine, including the twin 10-meter telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Subaru Telescope on Maunakea in Hawaii.

“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’ve become increasingly convinced that it is out there,” said 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.”

Other planets have been discovered by mathematical modeling, including Neptune in 1846.

But not every prediction has led to an actual planet, said Robert Massey, deputy executive director of Royal Astronomical Society in London.

“There have been instances in the past where planets have been predicted… but weren’t found,” he told AFP.

But, he added, the researchers who have published their paper are respected in the science community and their hypothesis is definitely worth following up.

“It would be a really exciting thing to find. At the moment it’s simply a prediction.”

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Space tech for your air

Being an astronaut certainly has its fair share of perks – and one of them would be to be able to make use of gadgets that are unavailable to the layperson, and if given the chance, being able to fly to space – and view the globe in which close to 7 billion people live on from afar, always evoking a sense of wonder. Having said that, here is something from NASA that you might want to consider picking up and placing it right smack in a strategic location of your humble abode – it will not cloak your home from aliens, but rather, the $799.95 NASA Filterless Air Purifier intends to ensure that your home’s air is as fresh as possible.


The NASA Filterless Air Purifier is a patented filterless purifier which will make use of technology developed by NASA that has seen action aboard space shuttles, where it scrubs and sanitizes the air, hence the rather hefty price tag. It will ditch the traditional idea of catching airborne particles like a net, but rather, will go ahead by destroying these offensive particles on a molecular level. There will be a quiet fan which draws air into the sleek box, allowing the unit’s reaction chamber to bombard the pathogens with UV light and chemical processes, doing away with the likes of pet dander, mold spores, and more than 99.99% of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It will consume as little juice as a 60-watt lightbulb, and the reaction chamber lasts up to a year.

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Making fuel out of poop

At NASA’s request,University of Florida researchers have figured out how to turn human waste — yes, that kind — into rocket fuel.

Adolescent jokes aside, the process finally makes useful something that until now has been collected to burn up on re-entry. What’s more, like so many other things developed for the space program, the process could well turn up on Earth, said Pratap Pullammanappallil, a UF associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering.

“It could be used on campus or around town, or anywhere, to convert waste into fuel,” Pullammanappallil said.

In 2006, NASA began making plans to build an inhabited facility on the moon’s surface between 2019 and 2024. As part of NASA’s moon-base goal, the agency wanted to reduce the weight of spacecraft leaving Earth. Historically, waste generated during spaceflight would not be used further. NASA stores it in containers until it’s loaded into space cargo vehicles that burn as they pass back through the Earth’s atmosphere. For future long-term missions, though, it would be impractical to bring all the stored waste back to Earth.

Dumping it on the moon’s surface is not an option, so the space agency entered into an agreement with UF to develop test ideas.

Pullammanappallil and then-graduate student Abhishek Dhoble accepted the challenge.

“We were trying to find out how much methane can be produced from uneaten food, food packaging and human waste,” said Pullammanappallil, a UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences faculty member and Dhoble’s adviser. “The idea was to see whether we could make enough fuel to launch rockets and not carry all the fuel and its weight from Earth for the return journey. Methane can be used to fuel the rockets. Enough methane can be produced to come back from the moon.”

NASA started by supplying the UF scientists with a packaged form of chemically produced human waste that also included simulated food waste, towels, wash cloths, clothing and packaging materials, Pullammanappallil said. He and Dhoble, now a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, ran laboratory tests to find out how much methane could be produced from the waste and how quickly.

They found the process could produce 290 liters of methane per crew per day, all produced in a week, Pullammanappallil said.

Their results led to the creation of an anaerobic digester process, which kills pathogens from human waste, and produces biogas — a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide by breaking down organic matter in waste.

In earth-bound applications, that fuel could be used for heating, electricity generation or transportation.

The digestion process also would produce about 200 gallons of non-potable water annually from all the waste. That is water held within the organic matter, which is released as organic matter decomposes. Through electrolysis, the water can then be split into hydrogen and oxygen, and the astronauts can breathe oxygen as a back-up system. The exhaled carbon dioxide and hydrogen can be converted to methane and water in the process, he said.

The study was published last month in the journal Advances in Space Research.

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