Discovery of new planet underscores lack of federal funding

FILE - This Aug. 10, 2015 photo made available by NASA shows a sunrise from the vantage point of the International Space Station, about 220 miles above the surface of the Earth. (Scott Kelly/NASA via AP)

The issue of planets in our solar system is a divisive one that has left many celestial bodies with their feelings hurt. With the discovery of Eris, an icy object, in 2005, scientists were forced to rewrite the definition of what it meant to be a planet. Currently, there are eight planets in our solar system, listed in closeness to the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as well as five dwarves: Ceres (an asteroid), Pluto, Haumea, Makemake and Eris.

The latter four dwarves fall in the Kuiper Belt, a region of space inhabited by icy objects beginning at the edge of Neptune’s orbit and extending outwards. Not much is known about this far-off region of space but recent evidence points to the existence of an object 10 times the mass of Earth with about the size of Neptune, forebodingly named Planet Nine.

First proposed in 1846 by Percival Lowell, ‘Planet X’ (back when Pluto was nine) was used to explain the irregular orbits of the gas giants. Just a hypothesis used as a throw-away term to ration every abnormality astrophysicists could not account for, recent discoveries out of California Institute of Technology (Caltech) lists five different pieces of evidence that point to the existence of an orbiting massive object in the Kuiper Belt.

This evidence shows all eight planets orbit six degrees compared to the sun’s equator and bodies in the Kuiper Belt orbit in the opposite direction compared to everything else in our solar system. If the existence of a massive planet out there was not responsible for these observances, the laws astrophysicists hold as true would have to be reevaluated because currently, no other explanation exists.

Researchers out of the New Mexico State University hypothesize that Planet Nine is not only out there, but that it isn’t even native to our solar system; rather a wandering planet trapped by our sun’s gravitational planet. This would explain how such a massive object formed so far away from the sun while having an inclined, irregular orbit. Other researchers have already found the existence of wandering planets, defined as those not actively orbiting a sun. Under simulations, when one encountered a solar system, the planet was incorporated into the natural orbit 40 percent of the time.

In the midst of all this discovery, one glaring uncertainty weighs on scientists’ mind: funding. Space exploration and discovery is a field everyone wants to get into, but no one wants to pay for. NASA has not independently launched manned missions in a number of years and private companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, have stepped in to fill the void.

But where private companies are often more innovative and able to bring production costs down compared to a government agency, academic research in astrophysics is still largely funded by NASA. Year after year, NASA’s funding seems to be cut in an effort to balance the budget and, while this past years cut was not particularly damaging, only a $561 million decrease, it symbolizes how perception of NASA’s importance has fallen since its glory days in the 60s.

Academics in all areas, not just space, are concerned about funding as this is the first time a fully Republican-led government has solely been in charge of balancing budgets. Academic research, especially in the areas of health and environment, is largely funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the EPA. Republicans are not anti-research, per se, but historically funding to such institutes that provide government research grants fluctuate greatly with change in administrations, often going down when the administration turns red. Democrats, as an example, are much more likely to fund environmental research projects, such as the EPA, compared to Republicans.

While it is good to have a mix of opinions, we must be reminded about the importance of academic research. Though the existence of Planet Nine has little to no impact on most people’s everyday lives, the development of vaccines and projects looking into safe ways to increase crop production do and the professors who conduct this research are currently in a limbo state where they don’t know if they will have to shut down their labs because of lack of government funding. We should hold research higher in importance because, ultimately, scientific discoveries are what drive us forward.


David Csordas is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at david.csordas@uconn.edu.