A ‘homeless planet’ which floats through space without orbiting a star had been discovered for the first time.
Scientists have speculated on the existence of such a planet and have been trawling the night skies for more than a decade, although the hunt was described as looking for a ‘needle in a thousand haystacks’.
The isolated planet, which astronomers believe may have been flung away during its formation, is not tied by gravity to a star and in 100 light years away.
University of Montreal (UdeM) researchers working with European colleagues and data provided by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) came across the huge discovery.
Itienne Artigau, an astrophysicist at UdeM, said: ’Although theorists had established the existence of this type of very cold and young planet, one had never been observed until today.’
The absence of a shining star in the area around this planet enabled the team to study its atmosphere in great detail.
This information will in turn enable astronomers to better understand planets that do orbit stars.
’Over the past few years, several objects of this type have been identified, but their existence could not be established without scientific confirmation of their age,’ said Jonathan Gagni, a doctoral student of physics at UdeM.
’Astronomers weren’t sure whether to categorise them as planets or as Brown Dwarfs.
’Brown dwarfs are what we could call failed stars, as they never manage to initiate nuclear reactions in their centres.’
The planet is called CFBDSIR2149 and appears to be part of a group of very young stars known as the AB Doradus Moving Group.
It is between 50 and 120 million years old, with a temperature of approximately 400 degrees celsius, and weighs four to seven times that of Jupiter.
The study’s findings support theories that suggest these kinds of isolated objects are more common than currently believed.
Astrophysicist Ms Artigau, who also worked on the study, said: ’This object was discovered during a scan that covered the equivalent of 1,000 times the surface of the full moon.
’We observed hundreds of millions of stars and planets, but we only found one homeless planet in our neighbourhood.
’Now we will be looking for them amongst an astronomical number of sources further afield.
’It’s like looking for a single needle in amongst thousands of haystacks.’
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