While some of us are sure of the number of gates to heaven and the kind of visa needed to get in, some scientists are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to locate the 9th planet. Those who have mastered the layouts of heaven, including the postal code of their mansions, are waiting for death to come and take them there. Well, not really. Most of them are not in a hurry to make the journey. It is, however, slightly different for scientists. For scientists, they are willing and are working to send spacecraft on a journey of over 2.8 billion kilometers in search of the 9th planet.

When most of us were in school, the 9th planet was Pluto. It used to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Venus and Saturn. In 1992, questions were raised about its status as a planet, following the discovery of several other objects of its size within the area called the Kuiper belt. In 2005, an object called Eris was discovered. It has mass that is 27% more than Pluto. So in 2006, Pluto was demoted from a planet to a mere dwarf planet for failing to clear the objects around its orbit. On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft tapping the gravity of Jupiter flew by Pluto accurately measuring it and providing conclusive proof that it wasn’t a planet.

Scientists have since found out that there are thousands of such objects found beyond Neptune. Some of the objects orbit the sun at 140 billion miles away. Some, like Sedna, orbit the sun every 19, 000 years. It means that if the last time it came around was the year Jesus was born, the next time it will come around will be the year 21,016. Definitely, nobody who will live on this earth then will remember that anyone who lived in our time ever existed, including Albert Einstein and Bill Gates. Their accomplishment would have become so miniscule then that encyclopedia of the time will be very generous to give them one paragraph or a sentence. They will be like the great people who lived on this earth some 20,000 years ago. Yeah, there were great people then though we have no idea who they were.

Pluto's demotion left a lot of holes in our understanding of how the planetary system works. Every model of our solar system suggests that there is a 9th planet. The gravitational pull and the orbit structure around our sun clearly indicated that something is pulling something from a distance and is keeping everything in place. Scientists could accept by faith that the thing pulling is the 9th planet. But they are not. They are looking for it with bigger and bigger telescopes.  They are also sending space probes to travel billions of miles to find it. Looking at gravitational pull around the area beyond Neptune, Prof. Brown and other scientists at Caltech concluded that there is an unknown source of gravity at play.

Several hypotheses have been thrown out. Using computer models, some theories have been established. One of the most fascinating one is the possibility that 4.5 billion years ago, our sun stole a planet from another solar system. This planet is the 9th planet that is orbiting billions of miles away from our sun.

If that is true, it makes that 9th planet one that is exoplanet- that is a planet in our system that came from another planetary system, which makes it an exciting possibility. Finding the 9th planet and possibly exploring it will give us insight into what is happening in places far deep in the universe that our technological prowess may not take us to in the next 100 years.

Such prospect is so exciting that our scientists are already on the case. The first sign that it would be possible to go there and find the 9th planet came with the successful arrival of Juno to the orbits of Jupiter on July 4th after a five-year journey that started on August 5, 2011.

At the cost of $1.1 billion, Juno will study the magnetic and gravitational structure of Jupiter as well as the composition of the largest planet in our sun. Jupiter is 1000 times the size of the earth and is the planet that spins the fastest. For the last 150 years, a storm called the Great Red Spot has been raging in Jupiter. The temperature near the Jovian core of Jupiter is estimated to be over 20,000 Celsius, which is three times hotter than the surface of the sun.

Jupiter is the third shiniest object in space after the moon and Venus. Long before Jesus came, ancient Romans named it after the king of Roman gods, Jupiter. Jupiter has 67 moons out of which four, discovered by Galileo Galilee in 1610, are very prominent: Europa, Lo, Ganymede and Calisto. Jupiter completes an orbit in 11.96 years but it rotates around its axis in less than 10 hours.

Nobody knows what is inside Jupiter. Some believe that Jupiter is the storage site of all the gasses that came out when the universe was formed. Juno will study the surface of Jupiter and help scientists understand how the planets came together 4.5 billion years ago.

The theories around Jupiter are interesting. It is believed to be the planet that kicked Uranus and Neptune to the outskirt of our planetary system. Some have theorized that it was Jupiter that hurled the asteroids that landed on earth and delivered water to earth upon which life started. In the last 40 years, eight spacecraft have visited Jupiter but there are still a lot that we do not know because cloud of gasses covers the surface.

In the course of the mission, Juno will go round Jupiter 37 times. At some point it will be as close as 2,600 miles. It is currently orbiting Jupiter at one orbit every 53 days. On October 23, it will change course and move into an orbit that will loop around Jupiter every 14 days. All these are happening at a distance of 2.8 billion kilometers from Earth.

The scientists’ next target is to send another spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The craft will fly by Europa. On June of 2022, a European craft called Juice will leave the earth and in 2030 arrive at Jupiter to study the moons and fly over the largest called Ganymede. These moons are covered in ice and believed to have water buried in them. Scientists believe that there are forms of life in these moons. It is the reason they are making sure that Juno does not crash into any of them. They do not want the unsterilized Juno to transfer Earth microbes that followed it to space and contaminate these moons.

If the writer of the book of Revelation were to do so today, he will definitely update it with knowledge from the pictures Juno and other spacecraft have been sending back to us from space. His allegory on the struggle between good and evil as represented by the beast with seven heads and a great dragon would have been less bombastic and vague, and would have reflected the order we now know exists up in the heavens. The locusts wearing a human face and hair and having lion’s teeth would have borrowed a few gadgets from Juno for a long journey across space and time where stars are collapsing and rivers are turning into blood.

Nevertheless, in February 2018, Juno will commit suicide. It will do so by plunging into the magnetic field laden surface of Jupiter for its final scientific mission. It will do so, just for us. It will not be painful for we take comfort in knowing that our scientists are already working on more superior spacecraft as replacement. These are spacecraft that will be sent to watch out for silence in heaven as they do greater exploration for us in a continuing chase for heaven.


Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo is the author of "This American Life Sef." He can be reached at [email protected]

Rudolf Okonkwo

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