A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

There's something out there -- part 2

The view from Sedna

(Be sure to read part 1)

Seven years ago, the moment I first calculated the odd orbit of Sedna and realized it never came anywhere close to any of the planets, it instantly became clear that we astronomers had been missing something all along. Either something large once passed through the outer parts of our solar system and is now long gone, or something large still lurks in a distant corner out there and we haven’t found it yet.

There is something out there -- part 1

Is it real, or is it cat hair?

Seven years ago this week I was preparing one of my favorite lectures for The Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems, a class I frequently teach at Caltech. “Preparing” is probably the wrong word here, because this lecture, called The Edge of the Solar System, was one I could give even if instantly wakened from a cold deep sleep and immediately put on stage with bright lights in my eyes and an audience of thousands and no coffee anywhere in sight. The lecture explored what was known about the edge of our main planetary system and the ragged belt of debris called the Kuiper belt that quickly faded to empty space not that much beyond Neptune. Conveniently, one of my most active areas of research at that time was trying to figure out precisely why this ragged belt of debris had such an edge to it and why there appeared to be nothing at all beyond that edge. I could wing it. So instead of preparing the lecture, I really spent that morning doing what I did whenever I had a few spare moments: staring at dozens of little postage-stamp cutouts of pictures of the sky that my telescope had taken the night before and my computer had flagged as potentially interesting. Interesting, to my computer, and to me, meant that in the middle of the postage stamp was something that was moving across the sky at the right rate to mark it as part of the Kuiper belt. I was not just lecturing about this debris at the edge of the solar system, I was looking for more of it, too.

Heading South, Looking Up

For most of the past decade the last thing I would do before going to bed was to step out on to my back patio and stare up at the sky for a few minutes, checking for clouds. If the skies were clear I always slept better. In the morning, I would hop out of bed and do the same thing, to see if any unexpected weather front had passed or cirrus had snuck in while I had been sleeping. If all was well with the skies, I knew that my robotic telescope 95 miles southeast of me, likely had a successful night scanning the skies, and I was excited to get up and get to my office to see the results. I knew that any clear night we might (and eventually did!) discover something larger than anything else ever seen past Neptune. It was just a matter of time and of keeping those pesky clouds away.

Season 4: The Sabbatical Years

Mike Brown’s Planets is back. After a long break at the conclusion of Season 3 (I define these Seasons after the fact: if I haven’t written anything in a while I declare it to have been because, clearly. it is the end of the season), the writing will now resume. This season is destined to be the most exciting of all for the simple fact that it also coincides with my current sabbatical, which started last week and lasts for the next 6 months.

My sabbatical will be a funny thing. While most people take the opportunity to take their families to glamorous places and work in exciting new labs, I am taking the opportunity to spend more time in my comfy green chair at home, writing. Diane refers to it as my staybbatical, which I guess is about right. And, after a few days of tidying up loose ends from my office, I am finally here, sitting in the green chair. Let Season 4 commence.