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UFO stupidities:

Actually, this page deals more with astronomers' incapacity to communicate clearly and the newspapers' tendency to exaggerate astronomical science news that are barely understood by laymen...

The "IRAS detection of planet X" myth:

The story starts with an article titled "Possibly as Large as Jupiter; Mystery Heavenly Body Discovered", by Thomas O'Toole, Washington Post Staff Writer, on Friday, December 30, 1983; Page A1.

The article by the Washington Post:

Possibly as Large as Jupiter;
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.

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 trillion 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 classify it."

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 trillion 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 trillion 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.

Final Edition (ITEM 127)

The distance from earth of a mysterious object in space was reported incorrectly in some editions yesterday. The correct figure is 50 billion miles.

Scans of the original article are here. There is absolutely no doubt that the article is not a faked article but a genuine article. It is in fact quite well known among astronomers because of the many questions asked by its readers to many astronomers who have an open Question-and-answer web site.

Article by the New York Times:

The New York Times published the following article on January 30, 1983. It is not directly related to the above, but is of similar interest nevertheless.

Something out there beyond the farthest reaches of the known solar system seems to be tugging at Uranus and Neptune. Some gravitational force keeps perturbing the two giant planets, causing irregularities in their orbits. The force suggests a presence far away and unseen, a large object that may be the long - sought Planet X. ... The last time a serious search of the skies was made it led to the discovery in 1930 of Pluto, the ninth planet. But the story begins more than a century before that, after the discovery of Uranus in 1781 by the English astronomer and musician William Herschel. Until then, the planetary system seemed to end with Saturn.

As astronomers observed Uranus, noting irregularities in its orbital path, many speculated that they were witnessing the gravitational pull of an unknown planet. So began the first planetary search based on astronomers predictions, which ended in the 1840's with the discovery of Neptune almost simultaneously by English, French, and German astronomers. But Neptune was not massive enough to account entirely for the orbital behavior of Uranus. Indeed, Neptune itself seemed to be affected by a still more remote planet. In the last 19th century, two American astronomers, Willian H. Pickering and Percival Lowell, predicted the size and approximate location of the trans-Neptunian body, which Lowell called Planet X. Years later, Pluto was detected by Clyde W. Tombaugh working at Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Several astronomers, however, suspected it might not be the Planet X of prediction. Subsequent observation proved them right. Pluto was too small to change the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, the combined mass of Pluto and its recently discovered satellite, Charon, is only 1/5 that of Earth's moon.

Recent calculations by the United States Naval Observatory have confirmed the orbital perturbation exhibited by Uranus and Neptune, which Dr. Thomas C Van Flandern, an astronomer at the observatory, says could be explained by "a single undiscovered planet". He and a colleague, Dr. Richard Harrington, calculate that the 10th planet should be two to five times more massive than Earth and have a highly elliptical orbit that takes it some 5 billion miles beyond that of Pluto - hardly next-door but still within the gravitational influence of the Sun...

Newsbrief by US NEWS:

The news brief is a combination of the two articles above.

Planet X - Is It Really Out There? Sept 10, 1984

Shrouded from the sun's light, mysteriously tugging at the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, is an unseen force that astronomers suspect may be Planet X - a 10th resident of the Earth's celestial neighborhood. Last year, the infrared astronomical satellite (IRAS), circling in a polar orbit 560 miles from the Earth, detected heat from an object about 50 billion miles away that is now the subject of intense speculation. "All I can say is that we don't know what it is yet," says Gerry Neugesbeuer, director of the Palomar Observatory for the California Institute of Technology. Scientists are hopeful that the one-way journeys of the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes may help to locate the nameless body."

The reality check:

IRAS:

IRAS is basically an infrared telescope launched in space in 1983. During an 11 months mission, he acquired infrared images of clouds of interstellar matter, stars, comets, and asteroids from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The object discussed here:

There are several sources for the notion that IRAS observed a mysterious body:

The first is a scientific paper published in the March 1, 1984 Astrophysical Journal Letters by Houck et al titled "Unidentified point sources in the IRAS minisurvey discussed nine 60 Ám sources which had "no counterparts in a variety of catalogs of nonstellar objects. Four objects have no visible counterparts."

It was speculated in that paper that the sources could be either a galaxy emitting much more infrared radiation relative to optical radiation than usual; or be a cool object in the outer solar system; or be a brown dwarf just outside the solar system; or be something else.

This was reported in several newspaper, before the peer reviewed scientific paper was even published, probably because the authors sought some publicity around their name, with interviews of the astronomers. Although seemingly spectacular, those articles must be read correctly before any interpretation may be started. For example, here is an approach of the Washington Post article above:

  1. The body is possibly as large as the giant planet Jupiter.
  2. The body is possibly so close to Earth that it would be part of this solar system (which does not mean that it is close to Earth, but that it is possibly within the solar system, and the solar system is absolutely more gigantic that the distance from Earth to the last known planet Pluto). There is no doubt that na´ve readers will understand "there is a huge planet near Jupiter."
  3. Astronomers know nothing of the object ("because it is mysterious"), in particular, they think it may be a star, or even a distant galaxy. Not much of a solar system planet...
  4. Here is the best part: "a comet would probably have moved" indicates that this object did not move. "A planet may have moved if it were as close as 50 trillion (it is billion) miles but it could still be a more distant planet and not have moved in six months time" indicated that it cannot be a planet if it is within 50 billion miles.
  5. "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" is complete nonsense. Jupiter is not a star but a planet; moreover, the notion that Jupiter is some sort of "aborted star" is erroneous, it does not have half the mass required to be a star.
  6. "If it is really that close (...)" starts with an "if" and the rest is only speculation.
  7. "If it is that close, I don't know how the world's planetary scientists would even begin to classify it" suggest that something new and strange has been discovered, but actually, it should be read the other way round: "it is unlikely that it is that close because there is no known object that could account for it as for now, so unless we prove that it is close, it is much more likely that it is not close at all."

Of course, there seems to be a strange art of communicating among our scientists; for example:

"The most fascinating explanation (...) is that it is a giant gaseous planet, as large as Jupiter and as close to Earth as 50 billion miles" is highly inappropriate phrase. Imagine scientists' reaction if a ufologist would have a newspaper report an item such as "A light in the sky has been seen, we do not know what it is, and the most fascinating explanation is that it is a spaceship of extraterrestrial origin." Just because a very unlikely possibility cannot be ruled out at this point of his research, our scientist here creates media exaggeration.

"All I can tell you is that we don't know what it is" is the key sentence and is not good scientific communication. Scientists should communicate results, not speculation based on ignorance.

"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 (...)"

This is in no way a valid scientific attitude. Scientists should not refuse notions, they should indeed prove or disprove notions. Scientists should not "hope," or be "bedeviled" either. They should study, they should build hypothesis and experiments. They should also not "believe."

Because these scientists have accumulated an impressive collection of "ifs" and "possibly's" that the press writers do not reflect in their title, there is no wonder that the article has created a buzz of speculation among laymen of the "Planet Nibiru" or "Planet-X" enthusiasts kind. Their mistake.

Because the same scientists and the same journalists did not take the care to follow-up, there was no subsequent article. What about the "next step" mentioned at the end of the article? It is very likely that this next step resulted in the discovery that the object is a distant infra-red emitting galaxy. Of course, the scientists and the newspapermen do not think that it is worth an announcement... But they will be the first to mock the "lunatic fringe" speculations that they started.

Here is an example of what was published on a web site called "Planet Niburu:"

The United States Government squashed the story immediately! For some arcane top-secret reason the government doesn't want to alarm or panic the general public by disclosure of this discovery. Why? Because a race of super-beings inhabits that planet, and common knowledge of this fact would have people screaming in the streets.

The US Government actually never said anything at all bout this matter.

The fact:

"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."

What we learn here is that it cannot be a planet... Any astronomer and even amateur astronomer or even laymen could see that if it has not moved in six months, then the chances that it may be a planet at 50 billion miles are so close to zero that all the speculation is totally absurd. Much fuss for strictly nothing!

But instead of losing the speculation, our scientists add more speculations: "there was some speculation that it might be moving toward Earth." Indeed it would explain that it did not move in an apparent manner for the telescope: aha, it is a planet that does not orbit the sun, it is a planet that travels towards earth. I must confess I am stunned by the reasoning here. Here is another similar reasoning: "we did not see the little green of Mars with the Pathfinder lander. Well, this means that the little green men live underground, rather than on the surface of Mars."

Neugebauer said: "I want to douse that idea with as much cold water as I can." Fine. But readers miss such statements, and responsible scientists should know that. The press puts such statements at the end of articles, as if it were some ordinary precaution. In this case, Neugebauer should have said "This is a totally crazy idea that makes no sense at all and I do not know what took me to mention it to a newspaperman."

In the following years, several more responsible astronomers dealt with this "mystery object" and other similar object and explained them. I am nevertheless quite critical with their calling it "a rumor." The whole affair was not started as "a rumor among the lunatic fringe." It was started by scientists themselves, and it first spread not as a "rumor" but as "journalism." If there are criticisms to formulate against Niburu and Plant-X fans, I would say that they are not qualified astronomers, and too trusting vis-a-vis the Press and scientists.

Conclusion:

Much ado about nothing.

Finally in 1985 and the subsequent years, several scientific papers did show that the object and other such objects were distant infrared emitting galaxies. Of course, the press did not inform of that. Of course, the scientists did not care to communicate it through the general public Press either. Not sensational enough...

One more word:

The above does not imply that there are no asteroids beyond Pluto.

IRAS cataloged 250,000 sources in the Point Source Catalog, supplemented by an additional 100,000 in the Faint Source Catalog, and the vast majority of these have not been followed up to date. Those that have been followed are either 1000 km across (average) Kuiper belt objects, rarely, and generally they are infra red emitting distant galaxies.

If every time a new such source is discovered, scientists would shout about some new mysterious planet... you guess the rest.

Here is a chart showing some of the Kuiper Belt objects and their size:

Kuiper Belt Objects

As seen from Earth those dim companions of Pluto appear to dark comets. It's hard to know exactly what they're made of because their insides are concealed by a layer of ruddy organic goop. Probably they're a mixture of ice, rock, and dust. Most are about the size of small asteroids (a few km to a few hundred km wide), and a few have emerged recently that are 30% to 50% as wide as the planet Pluto (2274 km). Indeed, say astronomers, it may be only a matter of time before observers spot one as big as Pluto itself. [I wrote this in 2002, they proved correct in 2005.]

The first of these strange bodies, which astronomers call Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), came to light in 1992, discovered by Dave Jewitt and Jane Luu - a pair of scientists who didn't believe the outer solar system was empty. Beginning in 1987 they had doggedly scanned the heavens in search of dim objects beyond Neptune. It took five years, looking off-and-on through the University of Hawaii's 2.2 m telescope, but they finally found what they were after: a reddish-colored speck 44 AU from the Sun - even more distant than Pluto! Jewitt (University of Hawaii) and Luu (UC Berkeley) wanted to name their find "Smiley," but it has since been cataloged as "1992 QB1."

So, there are indeed several "Planet X" and Niburus if you will. As for their sizes, conditions, you will easily understand that they are rather unlikely candidates of any indigenous life forms as we know it and certainly not as origin planet for our infamous "reptilians" and other "superior beings." They may be used as bases by alien beings of course, just as any other solid planet or satellite. Who knows?

References:

In addition to the newspaper articles reproduced above, you may want to read:

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