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ASU astrophysicist on what is known — and what isn't — about mysterious Planet 9
January 21, 2016

ASU astrophysicist discusses what is known — and what isn't — about our possible new neighbor, and why we never noticed it before

News broke this week that a planet 10 times the size of Earth may be lurking at the edge of our solar system.

Researchers at Caltech nicknamed it Planet Nine and estimated it orbits about 20 times farther from the sun than Neptune. Scientists did not actually observe the planet; mathematical modeling and computer simulation led them to hypothesize a planet was exerting the gravity necessary to cause objects in the Kuiper Belt to orbit in the same direction.

Theoretical astrophysicist Patrick Young, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration The School of Earth and Space Exploration is a unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Arizona State University, spoke with ASU Now about the significance of the announcement.

Question: How is it that this object hasn’t been seen before?

Answer: The idea is that if it exists, it’s a very distant object and it’s emitting very little radiation of its own. It’s not going to be reflecting much from the sun at this distance, so it’s not an easy thing to see. You would have to have an idea it’s there and do a lot of work to find it. It’s not something you would necessarily notice offhand. This is definitely not a discovery, and judging from the authors’ publication, I think they would agree with that. It’s merely suggested that it’s worth doing those difficult observations to see if we can find something.

Q: You said it’s difficult to observe. Why can’t we see it with Kepler or Hubble, something that can peer deep, deep into space?

A: If we knew where to look, we could almost certainly see it with Hubble. The issue is that it’s going to be in a very tiny part of the sky and Hubble does not observe very large areas. It only observes something much less than the size of the full moon at a time, so you really have to be pointed in the right direction. Kepler is designed to do a very different thing. It points at one very tiny region of the sky and monitors that continuously. That is not in a direction this object would be, if it exists.

Q: So there’s a lot of universe out there and it’s big enough to hide something 10 times the size of Earth?

A: Yes. When you figure that this thing is tens of billions of miles away from the sun at least, and if it’s a few times the size of Earth — tens of thousands of miles across — you can see that’s a tiny dot in a big area. It’s a lot of needles in haystacks.

Solar system's planet orbit paths are shown in an illustration.
The six most distant known objects in the solar system with orbits exclusively beyond Neptune (magenta) cluster in a single direction. Such an arrangement would be maintained by an outside force. Caltech researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown show in a new paper that a planet with 10 times the mass of Earth in a distant orbit anti-aligned with the other six objects (orange) is required to maintain this configuration. Top: An artist representation of Planet Nine, believed to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Images courtesy of R. Hurt/Caltech


Q: But so far it’s theoretical?

A: Right. Essentially what’s going on is this group has looked at the orbits of small bodies in the outer solar system — what we call Kuiper Belt objects — and they have noticed that the orbits of a certain class of these typified by Sedna, which is one of these dwarf planets that ended up getting Pluto demoted, are clustered in a certain area of orbital parameters, so they have fairly similar kinds of orbits that actually cluster very roughly in space. There are a few ways of making orbits cluster like this, and it turns out the work they have done shows that having a planet 10 or so Earth masses out at these large distances could very well cause that clustering in a plausible way. The other options for making those orbits look that way are not significantly more probable. Those all have problems describing things.

Q: Would it be accurate to say despite this week’s headlines that this is less than earthshaking in the world of planetary science and astronomy?

A: I would agree with that. It’s a very interesting result, but I wouldn’t call it a discovery until we actually make an observation of the planet.

Q: So this is more a function of people wanting to replace Pluto than anything else?

A: (laughs) I think that the first author of this paper, who takes credit for killing Pluto, would say that we don’t need to replace it, that it had it coming. But I think that generates a lot of the excitement about it.

See a video version of the interview below.

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Corporations want to be green, and make green. ASU tool can help them do both.
Many places where wetlands can be restored, but only a few economically viable.
Companies can protect environment — and their bottom line — with ASU water tool.
January 22, 2016

Dow Chemical among first corporations considering ASU water tool that helps protect environment and the bottom line

Sustainability looks good for corporations these days.

Starbucks, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola all tout their contributions to combating climate change, saving wildlife and replenishing water sources.

But corporations sometimes need help becoming sustainable.

A revolutionary new tool developed at Arizona State University can help corporations apply analytics to how they use water, simultaneously helping water conservation, habitat restoration and their bottom line.

Unveiled last month in Paris, the water decision tool is in consideration to be adopted by Dow Chemical at its Texas operations on the Brazos River.

“We believe there’s not only value to doing this for nature and society, but we have a goal to recoup a billion dollars over the next decade,” said Mark Weick, director of the sustainability program office at Dow.

The Green Infrastructure Support Tool was developed by John Sabo, a professor in the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and a faculty member of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes.

“It tells Dow how to meet their water bottom line for manufacturing by creating wetlands instead of creating gray infrastructure,” Sabo said. Gray infrastructure refers to built solutions, such as dams or retention basins.

“It allows them to site places where they would gain water by restoring what might be currently farmland or something else, or maybe it’s diked and the water can’t get there,” said Sabo, who is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “In a basin context, the water gets slowed down by those wetlands and then later in the year when the reliability of water is low and flows are low, the reliability is higher.

“What we’re trying to eventually do with them is to combine that green infrastructure concept with the gray that’s existing so that maybe they could store the extra water they slow down from floods.”

Dow operates a large plastics and specialty chemicals plant in Freeport, Texas, on the Brazos River. It is highly dependent on the river, the flow of which varies widely. During the huge floods that swept through parts of Texas last year, Dow reps told Sabo more water flowed past their plant in two days than they use all year.

“We’re very interested in tools that will potentially lead to projects that will improve water flow down the river,” Weick said. “This software is a great tool to evaluate how the water flows in the river.”

Some reeds and grasses grow at the edge of a river.

There are many places where wetlands can be
restored, but it isn't always economically viable.
Finding where it would be best for meeting the
bottom line is part of what the ASU water tool does.

Photo by Adrian Lynch

One example of an existing sustainable solution was the construction of a wetland beside Dow’s plant along the Gulf Coast in Seadrift, Texas. Instead of building a wastewater treatment plant, Dow restored a wetland that did the job of a treatment plant — by filtering wastewater through cleansing grasses and the like. It recouped $200 million out of an initial cost of $2 million. The wetland requires no maintenance and is far more effective than a plant.

“That shows us the kind of value of this kind of tool,” Weick said. “We want to do more projects like that. This software has the potential to be used as a screening tool to evaluate the viability of projects like that.”

The non-profit Earth Genome approached the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and asked them to provide the science. Earth Genome’s goal is to enable key institutions to account for natural capital in decision-making. The organization connects scientists and technology providers to governments, corporations and investors.

The non-profit’s current focus is on water. It is creating decision-support tools for executives in corporate operations, supply chains and financial services, addressing questions such as, “What are the most cost-effective green infrastructure investments I can make to mitigate water-quantity and -quality issues at my facility?”

“We fancy ourselves that this will trigger a new way of thinking and mass adoption, but we don’t know yet,” said Earth Genome co-founder Glen Low. The potential impact of being adopted by massive multinational corporations like Dow is huge, Low said.

“If you could redirect private capital to the same goal, it could be an order of magnitude bigger than what conservation organizations do today,” he said. “It’s all about scale.”

Sabo said the collaboration with Earth Genome was great.

“They know business-speak, and scientists typically don’t know business-speak, so it’s been a great opportunity,” Sabo said.               

The tool puts a dollar value on restoration comparing it with gray infrastructure. For instance, there are lots of places where wetlands can be restored, but only a few are economically viable and will meet the bottom line better. Finding where it would be best to invest in green infrastructure is what the tool does. One layer in the tool shows the parcel level of ownership in the Brazos watershed.

“Likely the restoration sites will be agricultural land with poor return,” Sabo said.

“It’s not only the world-class science, it’s breaking the mold. … When you combine business with science, and you put a financial wrap on it, all of that is innovative.”
— Glen Low, co-founder of non-profit Earth Genome

Dow is in the early stage of testing the tool. It will apply the software to the Brazos and look at enhancing water management strategies.

“We’ve so far been providing user feedback,” Weick said. “The tool has the potential for some really wide applicability in solving problems.”

Seven global corporations expressed interest in the tool when it was unveiled last month at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Paris, including Unilever, Monsanto and Indian mega conglomerate Tata.

“We built the tool for all of those companies,” Low said. “We just piloted it in the Brazos. … (Dow has) done things no one else has done. We wanted to make sure whatever we did advanced whatever they had done.”

Dow “has other places we could roll this out after we demonstrate its usefulness here,” Sabo said. “We’re working very closely with them to try to define a need that will be transportable to other basins and other companies.”

Hongkai Gao, a postdoctoral research associate, worked with Sabo and contributed the hydrological work on the tool.

Low said Earth Genome is excited about the tool’s potential.

“We’ve been super pleased working with John and Hongkai,” he said. “They’ve done a tremendous job. It’s not only the world-class science, it’s breaking the mold. We appreciate them being out on the skinny branch with us. … When you combine business with science, and you put a financial wrap on it, all of that is innovative.”

Sabo is pleased to see his work having an immediate, measurable impact on the environment.

“I like this because corporations can make things happen fast,” he said. “You know your science is going to lead to a solution fast.”