By Barry Eitel
SAN FRANCISCO (AA) – Astronomers announced Tuesday the discovery of the most distant object in the solar system and that it could hint at larger, unknown planets that orbit the sun just beyond Pluto.
The object, V774104, is roughly 15.5 billion kilometers (10 billion miles) from the sun – 103 times the distance between the sun and the Earth. The rocky world is actually three times as far as dwarf planet Pluto -- considered the last planet in the solar system before being downgraded by astronomers in 2006. Previously, the farthest known object in the solar system was 90 times the Earth-sun distance, which astronomers call an Astronomical Unit (AU).
The new object is on the edge of the Kuiper belt, a distant region beyond Neptune laden with space objects that is home to Pluto.
Astronomers believe the frozen object inhabits the inner fringes of the Oort cloud, a largely theoretical region that demarks the boundary of the solar system and is only loosely controlled by the sun’s gravitational pull.
If V774104 populates this far-out realm for its entire orbit, it might harbor a bounty of important cosmological data for scientists. Researchers believe the primordial objects on the distant edges of the solar system travel orbits that have not been altered for billions of years.
Astronomers announced the object’s discovery Tuesday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in Maryland. They noted that there is much to learn about the shadowy object that was discovered last month.
“We don’t know anything about its orbit,” Scott Sheppard, scientists at the Carnegie Institute of Washington and leader of the team that discovered the object, said at the meeting. “We just know it’s the most distant object known.”
The orbiting pattern could yield much more information about the Oor cloud. Learning more about objects such as V774104 will provide clues as to whether there are larger, undiscovered planets that occupy our solar system.