Astronomy, Google-Style

Even the field of planetary politics is now the domain of Internet intrigue.

It is possible that a hacker reaching for the stars last month ended up pulling in a planet, as well as a scientific community, when the sleuth forced the hand of a famed astronomer into releasing the discovery of the solar system’s 10th planet before he was ready.

Michael Brown, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology, discovered the planet in 2003, but he kept the news close to his vest until he gathered more data.

But it turns out that either a crafty hacker could have cracked into the university’s “secure” servers and discovered and pilfered the data, or a sleuthing group of Web-savvy scientists could have extracted the information from legal means — by using Google.

Either way, Brown didn’t want to take any chances of seeing his name left out of the history books, so he announced the discovery before someone beat him to it.

Brown said the recent saga began during a series of scientific lectures given last September. Presenting abstracts to his audience, intended only to whet the interest of other scientists, he described the planet by the K40506A moniker, which is what the software used in the discovery called it.

What the scientists didn’t know was the software used by the telescopes kept open logs on the Internet of who had been observing objects, where they have been observing the objects and what objects they had been observing. Each number presented to the public corresponded with important secret data.

A two-second Google search of K40506A revealed the observing logs, he said.

“From the moment the abstracts became public, anyone on the planet with a Web connection and a little curiosity about this K40506A object could have found out where it was,” Brown wrote in an e-mail to “Anyone on the planet with even a modest-sized telescope could then go find the object and claim a discovery as their own.”

Perhaps coincidently, a Spanish group of scientists, headed by J.L. Ortiz, announced they had discovered the object on their own from data culled over the past two to three years. The announcement came only days after the information was potentially available on the Web.

“I myself went to Google late on the night after the Spanish announcement, typed K40506A into Google, and let out a gasp,” Brown said. “Even though I don’t believe the Spanish group did this, I realized anyone could have found our object with very little effort.”

Brown vehemently defends the timing of the Spanish team’s discovery and plans to share the credit with them.

Still, it is unclear if anyone actually accessed the information through legal means, or if the servers that stored the sensitive data could have also been breached. However, Brown said he expects to have those answers soon.

He also said the data is still being processed, and it will take at least six months before astronomers can determine the planet’s exact size.

The planet, located in the Kuiper Belt, appears to be about 1.5 times the size of Pluto, which is usually dubbed a planetoid because it is so small.

Brown seems to be learning a lesson about the Internet that a whole industry has known for some time. It’s a lesson he doesn’t like.

“It’s true that the information was available without breaking into any sites,” he said. “It’s also true that sometimes I don’t lock the door to my house. I hope that people don’t think it’s therefore OK to come in and take my stuff.”

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