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Searching for 'Planet X,' scientists discover distant object billions of miles beyond Pluto

Doyle Rice 
Rana Dias | Caiaimage | Getty Images

At the very edge of our solar system, scientists have discovered a new, extremely distant object billions of miles beyond Pluto.

Even more interesting: The object has an orbit that hints of an even-farther-out "Super-Earth" or larger "Planet X" which could be lurking out there.

The findings were announced Tuesday by the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center.

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The object was discovered as part of astronomy's ongoing hunt for unknown dwarf planets and Planet X, aka "Planet Nine," an as yet undiscovered world that could have a mass about 10 times that of Earth.

According to NASA, "the existence of this distant world is only theoretical at this point and no direct observation of the object nicknamed have been made."

The new research, led by the Carnegie Institution for Science, is the largest and deepest survey ever conducted for distant solar system objects. "These distant objects are like breadcrumbs leading us to Planet X," said astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution, in a statement.

The object, a 200-mile-wide rock with the rather inelegant name of 2015 TG387, is some 7.9 billion miles from the sun. That's about two and half times as far away from the sun as Pluto.

"We think there could be thousands of small bodies like 2015 TG387 out on the solar system's fringes, but their distance makes finding them very difficult," said the University of Hawaii's David Tholen, a member of the research team.

Telescopes in Chile, Hawaii and Arizona were used to discover and confirm the existence of the distant object.

This isn't the first discovery this group of researchers has made. Earlier this year, again while searching for Planet X, the team found 12 additional moons of Jupiter.

"What makes this result really interesting is that Planet X seems to affect 2015 TG387 the same way as all the other extremely distant solar system objects," said researcher Chad Trujillo of Northern Arizona University. "These simulations do not prove that there's another massive planet in our solar system, but they are further evidence that something big could be out there," he said.

The findings have been submitted for publication to the Astronomical Journal.

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Key Points
  • SpaceX is set to launch NASA's planet-hunting satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket Monday evening.
  • TESS aims to discover thousands of planets during a mission expected to last two years.
  • The satellite will focus on each section of the Earth's sky for about a month at a time until it has surveyed both the Southern and Northern hemispheres.