Researchers have found the most distant object ever in our solar system.
The object, called V774104, is over 15.4 billion km (9.6 billion miles) from the sun and could be as wide as the state of Texas. The most interesting thing about this far-flung world is its yet-to-be-determined orbit, which hints at even more lying beyond it.
We think of the solar system as the area of space that falls within the gravitational influence of the sun. At the hypothetical edge is something called the Oort Cloud, a mass of icy objects where lots of comets are believed to start. V774104, which was spotted in October, resides somewhere between the Kuiper Belt and the inner side of the Oort cloud, at a distance over three times further than Pluto.
"We don't know anything about its orbit," said Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institute of Washington in the New Scientist. Sheppard and his team announced their discovery of the object Tuesday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in National Harbor, Maryland. "We just know it's the most distant object known," he said.
Learning more about its orbit will help determine whether the path of V774104 can be explained by our current understanding of how the solar system works, or if it will join distant dwarf planets Sedna andas the only known objects with orbits that can't be explained. These objects' oddball routes could be explained by a giant "Planet X" lurking unseen at the edge of the solar system, influencing bodies like V774104 with an unseen gravitational hand.
"Something might be shepherding the objects," Sheppard said.
The continuing hunt for far-off objects will help us understand if our neighborhood in this corner of the Milky Way is actually much bigger than it seems.