Archive for the ‘Rogue planet’ Category

Astronomers have discovered a potential “rogue” alien planet wandering alone just 100 light-years from Earth, suggesting that such starless worlds may be extremely common across the galaxy.

The free-floating object, called CFBDSIR2149, is likely a gas giant planet four to seven times more massive than Jupiter, scientists say in a new study unveiled today (Nov. 14). The planet cruises unbound through space relatively close to Earth (in astronomical terms; the Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light-years wide), perhaps after being booted from its own solar system.

“If this little object is a planet that has been ejected from its native system, it conjures up the striking image of orphaned worlds, drifting in the emptiness of space,” study leader Philippe Delorme, of the Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics of Grenoble in France, said in a statement.

Delorme and his team detected CFBDSIR2149’s infrared signature using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, then examined the body’s properties with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. [Video: Rogue Planet Has No Parent Star]

The newfound object appears to be among a stream of young stars called the AB Doradus moving group, the closest such stream to our own solar system.

Scientists think the AB Doradus stars all formed together between 50 million and 120 million years ago. If CFBDSIR2149 is indeed associated with the group — and researchers cite a nearly 90 percent probability — then the object is similarly young.

And if the discovery team is right about CFBDSIR2149’s age, the body is likely a planet, with an average temperature of 806 degrees Fahrenheit (430 degrees Celsius), researchers said.

There’s still a slight chance that CFBDSIR2149 is a brown dwarf — a strange object that’s larger than a planet but too small to trigger the internal nuclear fusion reactions required to become a full-fledged star. Additional observations should help decide the matter.

“We need new observations to confirm that this object belongs to the AB Doradus moving group,” Delorme told SPACE.com via email. “With a good distance measurement and a more accurate proper motion, we will be able to increase (or decrease) the probability that it is indeed a planet.”

The new study was published today in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The discovery of a starless alien planet would not be shocking, at least not anymore. In the last year or so, astronomers have spotted a number of such orphan worlds — so many, in fact, that some scientists think parentless planets are the rule rather than the exception.

One 2011 study, for example, estimated that rogue worlds outnumber “normal” planets with obvious host stars by at least 50 percent throughout the Milky Way. If that’s the case, the galaxy that includes Earth probably also hosts billions of orphan planets.

And gas giants may be in the minority among these solitary wanderers, researchers say.

“We now know that such massive planets are rare and that Neptunes or Earth-mass planets are much more common,” Delorme said. “We also know that massive objects are more difficult to eject [from solar systems] than light ones. If you follow the rationale, you deduce that ejected exo-Neptunes and ejected exo-Earths should be much more common than objects like CFBDSIR2149.”

It’s exciting to have a starless planet so close to Earth, researchers say. Future telescopes should be able to learn a great deal about CFBDSIR2149, since they won’t have to contend with the overwhelming glare of a nearby host star.

“This object is a really easy-to-study prototype of the ‘normal’ giant planets we hope to discover and study with the upcoming generation of direct-imaging instruments,” Delorme said. “It will help to improve our forecast of these objects’ luminosity and hence help us discover them ―and, once discovered, it will help us understand the physics of their atmospheres.”

http://www.livescience.com/24772-rogue-alien-planet-discovery.html

 

An as yet undiscovered planet might be orbiting at the dark fringes of the solar system, according to new research.

Too far out to be easily spotted by telescopes, the potential unseen planet appears to be making its presence felt by disturbing the orbits of so-called Kuiper belt objects, said Rodney Gomes, an astronomer at the National Observatory of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.

Kuiper belt objects are small icy bodies—including some dwarf planets—that lie beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Once considered the ninth planet in our system, the dwarf planet Pluto, for example, is one of the largest Kuiper belt objects, at about 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) wide. Dozens of the other objects are hundreds of miles across, and more are being discovered every year.

(See “Three New ‘Plutos’? Possible Dwarf Planets Found.”)

What’s intriguing, Gomes said, is that, according to his new calculations, about a half dozen Kuiper belt objects—including the remote body known as Sedna—are in strange orbits compared to where they should be, based on existing solar system models. (Related: “Pluto Neighbor Gets Downsized.”)

The objects’ unexpected orbits have a few possible explanations, said Gomes, who presented his findings Tuesday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Timberline Lodge, Oregon.

“But I think the easiest one is a planetary-mass solar companion”—a planet that orbits very far out from the sun but that’s massive enough to be having gravitational effects on Kuiper belt objects.

Mystery Planet a Captured Rogue?

For the new work, Gomes analyzed the orbits of 92 Kuiper belt objects, then compared his results to computer models of how the bodies should be distributed, with and without an additional planet.

If there’s no distant world, Gomes concludes, the models don’t produce the highly elongated orbits we see for six of the objects.

How big exactly the planetary body might be isn’t clear, but there are a lot of possibilities, Gomes added.

Based on his calculations, Gomes thinks a Neptune-size world, about four times bigger than Earth, orbiting 140 billion miles (225 billion kilometers) away from the sun—about 1,500 times farther than Earth—would do the trick.

But so would a Mars-size object—roughly half Earth’s size—in a highly elongated orbit that would occasionally bring the body sweeping to within 5 billion miles (8 billion kilometers) of the sun.

Gomes speculates that the mystery object could be a rogue planet that was kicked out of its own star system and later captured by the sun’s gravity. (See “‘Nomad’ Planets More Common Than Thought, May Orbit Black Holes.”)

Or the putative planet could have formed closer to our sun, only to be cast outward by gravitational encounters with other planets.

However, actually finding such a world would be a challenge.

To begin with, the planet might be pretty dim. Also, Gomes’s simulations don’t give astronomers any clue as to where to point their telescopes—”it can be anywhere,” he said.

Other astronomers are intrigued but say they’ll want a lot more proof before they’re willing to agree that the solar system—again—has nine planets. (Also see “Record Nine-Planet Star System Discovered?”)

“Obviously, finding another planet in the solar system is a big deal,” said Rory Barnes, an astronomer at the University of Washington. But, he added, “I don’t think he really has any evidence that suggests it is out there.”

Instead, he added, Gomes “has laid out a way to determine how such a planet could sculpt parts of our solar system. So while, yes, the evidence doesn’t exist yet, I thought the bigger point was that he showed us that there are ways to find that evidence.”

Douglas Hamilton, an astronomer from the University of Maryland, agrees that the new findings are far from definitive.

“What he showed in his probability arguments is that it’s slightly more likely. He doesn’t have a smoking gun yet.”

And Hal Levison, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, says he isn’t sure what to make of Gomes’s finding.

“It seems surprising to me that a [solar] companion as small as Neptune could have the effect he sees,” Levison said.

But “I know Rodney, and I’m sure he did the calculations right.”

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/05/120511-new-planet-solar-system-kuiper-belt-space-science