> ARTICLE: Mystery Heavenly Body Discovered
> 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.
"Possibly". Twice. IRAS (it should
have been capitalized!) was launched in
'83 and made all sorts of discoveries in its 11-month lifetime: IR-bright
"cirrus clouds" of interstellar matter, stars that are brighter in the IR
than in the visual, several comets (notably IRAS-Araki-Alcock), etc. Its
infrared photometry of the main-belt asteroids proved invaluable for getting
their diameters and albedos.
> 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.
That was the story at the end of 1983.
Has there been further study?
Undoubtedly. What did it turn out to be? I haven't heard -- but the
very fact that it has NOT been in the news for the last dozen years is a
good indication that it turned out to be something fairly mundane, e.g. an
infrared galaxy or a particularly thick wisp of cirrus. (Just because I
haven't heard myself doesn't mean that nobody else knows either, of course.)
> "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.
And that's the bottom line as of 12/31/83.
> 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.
And here's where the author begins speculating.
Probably asked various people
for possible explanations, and something like this can't immediately be ruled
out. A giant gas ball that far away would indeed be nearly invisible in the
optical and yet give off IR.
> "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 classify it."
Notice the first word in each of Houck's sentences:
IF. Both these sentences
are logically true: given that such an object is that close, then indeed
a) it would be part of the solar system and b) there would be huge debates
over its classification. But Houck does NOT state that the object IS that
close or that he believes it might be.
> 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.
Ah, some hard data! No motion is evident in six months.
> "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
"Suggests" indeed. "Probably have moved"
indeed. Even if the object were
fixed in space 50 billion miles away, it would have moved a fifth of a degree
-- a *huge* amount -- simply because IRAS's vantage point changed as it moved
from one side of the earth's orbit to the other! Yes, it's *possible* that we
saw it at a "crossing point" in its apparent path -- where its retrograde loop
intersects itself -- but *extremely unlikely*. The fact that this is possible
(although highly improbable) means that Houck couldn't rule it out absolutely;
hence the weasel words.
> Whatever it is, Houck said, the mystery body
is so cold its temperature
> is no more than 40 degrees above "absolute" zero, which is 459 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.
"Speculation" is exactly the right word.
> "It's not incoming mail," Cal Tech's Neugebauer
said. "I want to douse
> that idea with as much cold water as I can."
This is presented near the end of the article!
Almost as if it were a minority
opinion. Neugebauer is using language as forceful as I've ever seen coming
out of the mouth of a scientist. Stop the rumors! It just ain't so.
> 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.
"What if?" "Conceivably" "Might be" --
all speculation, probably on the part
of the article's author.
> 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 starts have not begun to shine or so surrounded by dust that its
> starlight cannot penetrate the shroud.
That's right -- they couldn't disprove it then.
But that doesn't mean that
it's therefore more likely to be close to us. They "'hope'" it's distant?
Who said "hope"? The word is in quotes in the article. What was the context?
> "I believe it's one of these dark, young
galaxies that we have never
> been able to observe before," Neugebauer said.
And indeed, this was the most likely explanation
at the time -- that's why
Neugebauer believes it.
> "If it is, then it is a major step forward
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, Neugebauer 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 ear-marked 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.
True enough. At the time this article
was written (12/31/83), that's all
they knew. Meanwhile, 12-plus years have passed. What's the end of the
story? If the object turned out to be just another IR galaxy like all the
others that IRAS found, you won't see a newspaper article about it. You might
not even find a journal article about it. The object would be buried in the
IRAS source catalog along with the millions of others -- identified, catalogued,
and promptly forgotten since there would be nothing special about it.
I'm not an infrared astronomer. I don't
generally keep up with that subfield.
But if anyone out there can say for certain what Nancy's mystery object turned
out to be, I know that I for one would like to hear it!
Bottom line -- it's much ado about very little,
a classic case of speculation
being treated as the most likely scenario.