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Mystery planet NIKU orbits against the Sun

Newest entrant to our solar system on the far side of Neptune, this planet has been named after Chinese word for rebel owing to its strange rotation.

A mysterious new planet has been discovered on the far side of Neptune —but a unique characteristic of its orbit has got scientists puzzled. The new planet has been christened “Niku” — the Chinese word for rebel. The reason? Because, according to observation, it has a retrograde orbit that means it rotates in the opposite direction to the sun’s rotation.

And, unlike all other planets in the solar system, Niku’s orbit sends it high up above the flat orbital disc at an angle of 110 degrees. It’s rising up at the moment, but will eventually cross over and arc downwards below the flat plane of the solar system. “I hope everyone has buckled their seatbelts because the outer solar system just got a lot weirder,” tweeted Michele Bannister, an astronomer from Queen’s University in Belfast.

Niku is small — experts believe it has a diameter of 200km (120 miles) across. And it exists beyond Neptune in the outer solar system — a place we know a lot less about compared to our immediate surroundings. As for why Niku has its strange orbit, there are a couple of theories. Firstly, it may have been affected by a collision at some point in the past with an object of a much larger mass. Alternatively, it could have been pulled into the orbit by a larger object orbiting somewhere beyond Neptune.

“It suggests that there’s more going on in the outer solar system than we’re fully aware of,” Dr Matthew Holman, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics who was part of the team that discovered Niku, told New Scientist. The news follows speculation over the possibility of “Planet 9” — another undiscovered planet supposedly in the outer reaches of the solar system.

However, NASA has said there is simply not enough evidence to unequivocally prove that it’s really there. Jim Green, NASA director of planetary science, said a paper predicting the existence of “Planet X” was only “the start of a process that could lead to an exciting result”. “It is not, however, the detection of a new planet,” he warned, saying, “It’s too early to say with certainty if there’s a so-called Planet X out there. What we are seeing is an early prediction.”

Scientific evidence for Niku seems more solid, and astronomers will no doubt be working hard to uncover more evidence about the solar system’s newest resident.

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