NASA should say we’ve known for over 25 years
By Thomas O’Toole, Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 1983 ; Page A1
A heavenly body possibly as large as
the giant planet Jupiter and possibly so close to Earth that it would be part of
this solar system has been found in the direction of the constellation Orion by
an orbiting telescope aboard the U.S. infrared astronomical satellite.
So mysterious is the object that astronomers do not
know if it is a planet, a
giant comet, a nearby “protostar” that never got hot enough to become a
star, a distant galaxy so young that it is still in the process of
forming its first stars or a galaxy so shrouded in dust that none of the light
cast by its stars ever gets through.
“All I can tell you is that we
don’t know what it is,” Dr. Gerry Neugebauer, IRAS chief scientist
for California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and director of the Palomar
Observatory for the California Institute of Technology, said in an interview.
The most fascinating explanation of this mystery
body, which is so cold it casts no light and has never been seen by optical
telescopes on Earth or in space, is that it is a giant gaseous planet as large
as Jupiter and as close to Earth as 50 billion
miles. While that may seem like a great distance in earthbound terms,
it is a stone’s throw in cosmological terms, so close in fact that it would be
the nearest heavenly body to Earth beyond the outermost planet Pluto.
“If it is really that close, it would be a part of
our solar system,” said Dr. James Houck of Cornell University’s Center for Radio
Physics and Space Research and a member of the IRAS science team. “If it is that
close, I don’t know how the world’s planetary scientists would even begin to
The mystery body was seen
twice by the infrared satellite as it scanned the northern sky from last January to
November, when the satellite ran out of the supercold helium that
allowed its telescope to see the coldest bodies in the heavens. The second
observation took place six months after the first and
suggested the mystery body had not moved from its spot in the sky near the
western edge of the constellation Orion in that time.
“This suggests it’s not a comet because a comet would
not be as large as the one we’ve observed and a comet would probably have
moved,” Houck said. “A planet may have moved if it were
as close as 50 billion miles but it could still be a more distant planet and not
have moved in six months time.”
Whatever it is, Houck said,
the mystery body is so cold its temperature is no more than 40 degrees above
“absolute” zero, which is 456 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The
telescope aboard IRAS is cooled so low and is so sensitive it can “see” objects
in the heavens that are only 20 degrees above absolute zero.
When IRAS scientists first saw the
mystery body and calculated that it could be as close as 50 billion miles, there
was some speculation that it might be moving toward Earth.
“It’s not incoming mail,” Cal Tech’s Neugebauer said.
“I want to douse that idea with as much cold water as I can.”
Then, what is it? What if it is as large as Jupiter
and so close to the sun it would be part of the solar system? Conceivably, it
could be the 10th planet astronomers have searched for in vain. It also might be a Jupiter-like star that started out to become
a star eons ago but never got hot enough like the sun to become a star.
While they cannot disprove that notion, Neugebauer
and Houck are so bedeviled by it that they do not want to accept it. Neugebauer
and Houck “hope” the mystery body is a distant galaxy either so young that its
stars have not begun to shine or so surrounded by dust that its starlight cannot
penetrate the shroud.
“I believe it’s one of these dark, young galaxies
that we have never been able to observe before,” Neugebauer said.
“If it is, then it is a major step forward in our
understanding of the size of the universe, how the universe formed and how it
continues to form as time goes on.”
The next step in pinpointing what the mystery body
is, Neuegebauer said, is to search for it with the world’s largest optical
telescopes. Already, the 100-inch diameter telescope at Cerro del Tololo in
Chile has begun its search and the 200-inch telescope at Palomar Mountain in
California has earmarked several nights next year to look for it. If the body is
close enough and emits even a hint of light, the Palomar telescope should find
it since the infrared satellite has pinpointed its position.