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Click here to find out more about “New Planets Found!” and “SUPER EARTH Orbiting Our Sun!”. Ignore the clickbait...Hank Green explains what might have been found in this episode of SciShow Space.

Hosted by: Hank Green
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In the past week or so, you may have seen some clickbaity headlines claiming to report the discovery of two new planets in our solar system. They say things like "New planets found!" and "Super Earth orbiting our Sun!" But you know as well enough by now to know that we're here to say not so much or at least not so fast. These reports aren't hoaxes or internet rumors, they're actually based on real observations made by two teams of astronomers who think that they may have found two separate previously unknown objects far beyond Neptune. But the astronomers themselves don't know for sure and the papers in which they report their findings haven't been accepted for peer review or publication yet. And the astronomy community seems to be mostly skeptical, to say the least.

But it is potentially exciting so let's go over what we know. Both finds were made using the Alma observatory in Chile which detects radio waves. In March 2014, one team of astronomers pointed the telescopes at a region of space near a star called W Aquilae and all seemed normal. Then a month later, they looked again and noticed that one point of light had moved. When they took a third set of pictures in May, it wasn't visible anymore possibly because it was just too dim at the time. Whatever it was, they decided to call it Gna after a Nordic goddess. Then in July 2014, a second group which has one researcher in common with the first, an astronomer named Wouter Vlemmings, was observing a different area this time near Alpha Centauri, the star system that's closest to ours. And again, nothing seemed weird until they took a second set of images in May 2015 and saw that one of the points of light was moving. They didn't give this one a name though. In both cases, the authors ran the numbers and realized that the objects could be big, previously unknown planets in our solar system.

But with just these two sets of observations it's really hard to know what they're seeing. One possibility, and this is an important one, is that these points of light might not exist at all. They could be examples of the data glitches that sometimes show up when you're using sensitive instruments. Usually when these glitches happen, scientists can identify what's causing them. If that's what's going on here, the researchers can't figure out what's behind them. And according to an interview that Vlemmings did with Scientific American, neither could any of the other astronomers who worked with Alma when they were asked if they had any ideas. Now even if they aren't glitches, that doesn't necessarily mean that what the astronomers found are planets. If they are actual physical objects in space, they could be any number of things because all the astronomers really know is how bright they appear to be and how fast they're moving. From that, they've been able to calculate a range of distances for these objects and they farther away they are, the bigger they'd have to be to look this bright, which is why they could each be the size of a planet, or in the case of the one in the direction of Alpha Centauri maybe even bigger. 

One option is that it's a brown dwarf, a kind of failed star, 3 trillion kilometers away. On the other hand, they could be icy worlds that are much closer to us. Gna for example could be about the size of Neptune but a hundred times farther away. Meanwhile the other world could be a sort of super Earth that's 6 times more distant than Pluto, or it could be super small and hanging out somewhere between Saturn and Uranus. Now it's worth pointing out that Alma's field of view is so tiny that the odds of finding anything big by accident are infinitesimally small. There's a reason one of the papers has the phrase "serendipitous discovery" in the title. So what the researchers really need is more data to help narrow down the possibilities, and with plenty of offers now rolling in to take another look in those areas with different instruments, it sounds like they're gonna get it. But until then, we really can't say if anything's been discovered at all. All we can say with certainty is that clickbaity headlines are clickbaity. 

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