8/01/2005

NASA guilty of cover-up

Boffins who discovered that there was a 10th planet in our solar system, had been sitting on the news for years until a hacker turned over their servers. The new planet, known as 2003UB313, has been identified as the most distant object ever detected orbiting the sun, California Institute of Technology astronomer Michael Brown said. But according to the South African Sunday Telegraph, the briefing was hastily arranged after Brown received word that his secure website containing the crucial data had been found by a curious web-surfer. The unnamed hacker was threatening to release the information, if the scientists did not want to.

It transpired that Brown and his friends had been sitting on the information since 2003 when they snapped it with a 122cm telescope at the Palomar Observatory. However they couldn’t confirm much about it until it was analyzed again last January. So in the time honored tradition of Boffins everywhere they decided to keep the data from the common people until they knew a bit more. Brown said that data is still being processed and it will take at least six months before astronomers can determine the planet’s exact size. The planet seems to be about 1.5 times the size of Pluto, which is usually dubbed a planetoid because it is so small.

The new planet has been identified as the most distant object ever detected orbiting the sun, California Institute of Technology astronomer Michael Brown said. Brown and colleagues Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz have submitted a name for the planet to the International Astronomical Union and are confident it will be designated a planet. Brown did not reveal the proposed name, but leaks have been stating the proposed name is ‘Zena’.

The planet is located about 9.7 billion miles from the sun and is about 1 1/2 times the size of Pluto, the researchers said. The new planet orbits the sun once every 560 years and is now at its farthest point from Earth, he said. In about 280 years, the planet will be as close as Neptune, he said. Like Pluto, the object's surface is believed to be predominantly methane, but its size -- about 1,700 miles in diameter -- qualifies it as a planet, Brown said. Earth is about 7,900 miles in diameter. The new planet is believed to be part of the Kuiper Belt, a large ring of icy objects that orbit beyond Neptune and are believed to be remnants of the material that formed the solar system.

The Caltech team, funded in part by NASA, had been waiting to announce the find until they had completed their studies, but changed their minds after a hacker threatened to go public with their data, Brown said. Their finding comes a day after a Spanish team of astronomers announced the discovery of another relatively large object orbiting in the solar system's outer reaches. That object, Brown said, was about three-quarters the size of Pluto. The new planet went undiscovered for so long because its orbit is tilted at a 45-degree angle to the orbital plane of the other planets, and travels in an elliptical orbit, Brown said.

The new planet is so far away that an observer standing on its surface could cover the view of the sun with the head of a pin, Brown said. It was sufficiently bright, however, for amateur astronomers to track it in the early morning sky, he said.

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