Astronomers have identified what is "very probably" a relatively close-by planet hurtling through space - not orbiting a star. The European Southern Observatory used its Very Large Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope to study the object, which it calls the "most exciting free-floating planet candidate so far."
The ESO stated that at only 100 light-years away, the planet is the closest such object to the Solar System. Since it is not part of a star system, astronomers have been able to study its atmosphere in detail, giving them a preview of what planets orbiting other stars may be like.
“Looking for planets around their stars is akin to studying a firefly sitting one centimetre away from a distant, powerful car headlight,” said Philippe Delorme lead author of a new study on the planet. “This nearby free-floating object offered the opportunity to study the firefly in detail without the dazzling lights of the car messing everything up.”
Other rogue planets have been discovered before, but scientists have been unable to determine their age, leaving open the possibility that such objects are brown dwarfs. The new object, dubbed CFBDSIR2149, seems to be part of a group of relatively young stars known as the AB Doradus Moving Group. This allows astronomers to determine much more about it.
“Further work should confirm CFBDSIR2149 as a free-floating planet," said Delorme. "These objects are important, as they can either help us understand more about how planets may be ejected from planetary systems, or how very light objects can arise from the star formation process. 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.”
Free-floating objects such as CFBDSIR2149 are hypothesized to form as either normal planets which are then ejected from their star systems, or as small lone objects. Either way, the ESO states the such objects could, perhaps, be as common as normal stars.
(Image courtesy ESO)