The first (red), second (green) and third (blue) sightings of 2012 VP113. (Image: Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo)
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Newly-discovered dwarf planet named after Joe Biden hints at undiscovered Planet X

Astronomers have detected a new dwarf planet out in the Oort Cloud, many millions of kilometres out from the orbit of Neptune - and its orbit hints at the existence of something much bigger.

We have a new neighbour. Astronomers Scott Shephered of the Carnegie Institute of Sciences and Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii have published a study in Nature detailing the discovery of 2012 VP113, a dwarf planet-sized nicknamed "Biden" after the current US vice-president. There's more to this discovery than a novelty name, however - it's the furthest object yet spotted orbiting our Sun, never getting closer than 11.9 billion kilometres, and has an orbital shape that indicates the possible presence of an even larger Earth-sized planet somewhere in the farthest reaches of the Solar System.

The most distant bodies orbiting the Sun, out beyond Neptune and the Kuiper Belt, lie in the Oort Cloud - this is where Biden is, along with Sedna (a probable dwarf planet candidate, which was spotted in 2001). Biden is estimated to be roughly 450km wide, but its orbit is absolutely massive relative to the inner Solar System that we're more familiar with. It is also, like Sedna, not officially a dwarf planet as of yet according to the International Astronomical Union, though they are generally assumed by many scientists to be.

Here's an illustration of Biden's orbit, provided by the Carnegie Institute of Sciences:

That small white dot in the middle is the Sun. On this scale, the orbits of the inner planets like Earth are too small to see - instead, the four purple lines represent the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, while the cloud of blue dots is the Kuiper Belt. That's where Pluto is, and where the New Horizons probe is currently heading - a probe that was launched in 2006, and which still isn't there yet. And much further out, beyond there, is the red dot of Biden and the orange dot of Sedna. The Earth orbits the Sun at one astronomical unit (AU), but by comparison the closest point between Biden and the Sun is a 80 times that distance. It is, to understate matters, far away.

Yet it's a fascinating discovery for what it lets us infer from the rest of the Oort Cloud, which was believed to extend from 5,000 to 10,000AU from the Sun. When Sedna was discovered it seemed to imply that there might be a further layer of objects orbiting in between the Kuiper Belt - which has objects with closest approaches of no more than 50AU from the Sun - and the Oort Cloud, a so-called inner Oort Cloud, which extended as far as 1,500AU from the Sun. Scientists were intrigued by the possibility of the objects they might find in the inner Oort Cloud, as they would represent a kind of fossilised early Solar System.

Most asteroids in the inner Solar System - from those in the Asteroid Belt to the Greeks and Trojans that chase and follow Jupiter around - have been perturbed out of their original, primordial orbits by the influence of planets, and are now locked into stable, regular orbits that resonate with the objects surrounding them. The stuff that's in the outer Oort Cloud is so far from the Sun that extremely slight tugs from outside the system, such as that from a passing star, can be enough to knock them around. Yet the inner Oort Cloud would be in a sweet spot, far enough from planets, Sun or passing stars to avoid getting disturbed, and as such reflect things pretty much as they were when the Solar System formed 4.5 billion years ago.

The surprise with Biden, though, is that it not only lends credence to the hypothesis that that inner Oort Cloud exists, but that the region has been affected by the gravity of an unknown large planet. Look again at the diagram above - Sedna and Biden both come to their closest approach to the Sun on the same side. Those two alone may just have been a coincidence, but so far there are 12 objects known to orbit out beyond Pluto, and they all cluster on the same side. It's too much to have been a coincidence. Here's National Geographic's Dan Vergano:

This orbital coincidence is what statistically suggests that a bigger planet tugged either long ago or continuously now at these smaller worlds' orbits to keep them clustered together. If the putative bigger planet is still there and is only a few times bigger than Earth, it would circle the sun about 250 times farther away than our planet does. A bigger one would circle even farther away.

It could still be there, it might not be. It might have been something like a rogue planet passing through, one lost by its home star and now wandering space. We just don't know, and it's only through further observation of this strange, distant, cold region of our part of the cosmos - which Shepherd and Trujiloo estimate could contain as many as 1,000 such objects, some of which will be as large as Mars - that we can narrow the options down. It would be wonderful if it turned out that all those astronomers who obsessivley searched for the so-called "Planet X", a planet with mass somewhere between the Earth's and Saturn's and assumed to lie beyond the orbit of Neptune, turned out to be correct.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR