Planet Nine is exciting news—but why?

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Planet Nine is exciting news—but why?

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And then there were nine—again.

Almost a decade after tiny Pluto got booted from the pantheon of planets, scientists believe that they may have found a replacement. A pair of scientists from the California Institute of Technology recently published evidence suggesting the existence of a ninth planet orbiting the sun, far beyond Pluto. According to their predictions, the hypothetical planet would be roughly ten times the size of Earth with an orbit of 10,000 to 20,000 Earth years.

If confirmed, it would be only the third solar planet (excluding dwarf planet Pluto) discovered since ancient times. These are rousing times for stargazers. Even Buzz Aldrin expressed his excitement in an article for Time, stating, “A potential new planet offers great satisfaction for those of us who look for things out there.”

But what about those of us who aren’t looking?

Many people, those outside of the astronomical community, are unaware of, or uninterested in, what goes on in observatories and universities. Others may find discoveries like this one amusing, but wonder—with good reason—why should I care? How will this affect my life?

The truth is, unless you take your horoscopes very seriously, a new planet probably won’t change your life much. Historically, the purpose of space exploration has not always been purely scientific; during the Cold War, it was more about military capabilities and political dominance than scientific advancement. Even today, many developing countries, like China, Japan and India, fund ambitious space programs in hopes of gaining the international prestige afforded to other spacefaring nations.

But space can also be a source of international unity, rather than division. The Apollo-Suyuz Test Project, conducted in 1975, was a joint U.S.-Soviet docking exercise meant to signal the beginning of an era of goodwill between the two superpowers. More recently, the International Space Station (ISS), which was launched in 1998, is an ongoing effort between five national space agencies and has been visited by residents of over 17 different countries.

Space programs can often be controversial public investments due to their high cost. Putting people in orbit or sending probes to distant worlds can be a difficult expense to justify when faced with much more pressing issues, such as hunger, homelessness or poverty. However, NASA funding is only a tiny fraction of the federal budget—about half of a percent. In addition, many of the technologies we regularly use here on Earth—everything from artificial limbs to firefighting equipment to enriched baby food—owe their existence to NASA.

But perhaps most importantly, space exploration fulfills our fundamental human need for discovery, especially in a world where little is left uncharted. It’s symbolic value can’t be quantified. How many future engineers, scientists and astronomers were first inspired by the watching a man on the moon on their television sets—and how many more will one day feel the same about a man on Mars, streaming onto their iPhones and laptops? For scientists and citizens alike, space offers us a chance to expand our perspective, achieve the impossible or simply look at the world in a new way.

It may be years before anyone catches a glimpse of Planet Nine, and centuries more before we can visit it. But we will never know anything about this mysterious world—or whatever else may be out there—unless we take the time to look.