Scientists have spotted a giant planet in our cosmic back yard – and they say it shouldn’t be there.
The newly-discovered gas giant planet, which is thought to be roughly similar to Jupiter but 11 times as massive, orbits a double star system that’s just 325 light years away from Earth – which is comparatively close in astronomical terms.
Markus Jonson and his team used the SPHERE exoplanet imager on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Paranal, Chile, to survey the star system, and they say the new exoplanet could change everything we have believed so far about how planets form.
The b Centauri system is composed of two stars — b Centauri A and b Centauri B.
Put together, they are about six to 10 times the mass of the Sun – and technically, stars in that weight class shouldn’t have planets at all. They’re certainly too hot to have a gas giant in a stable circular orbit like the one Jonson and his team have discovered.
“Until now,” the team said in a statement, “previous studies had failed to detect any such object around a star more than three times as massive as the Sun”.
Despite the small chance of finding any planets Professor Jonson says he started examining the data from SPHERE with an open mind.
“I thought that there might be no planets around the stars, which would be interesting, but there might also be potentially plenty of planets around them, which would be even more interesting,” he told Inverse.
He was surprised, too, to happen on evidence of a planet so early in the study, which took place between March 2019 and April 2021.
The discovery suggest that in the past astronomers may have based their theories too heavily on how our own sole system works, and there may be far stranger worlds out there to discover.
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“We have always had a very solar system centric view of what planetary systems are ‘supposed’ to look like,” MPIA scientist and co-author Matthias Samland explained.
“Over the last ten years, the discovery of many planetary systems in surprising and novel configurations has made us widen our historically narrow view. This discovery adds another exciting chapter to this story, this time for massive stars.”
The new planets almost perfectly circular obit suggests it may have formed at that distance from its parent star, rather than being pushed there by the sort of gravitational pinball that created highly elliptical planetary orbits.
“It will be an intriguing task to try to figure out how it might have formed, which is a mystery at the moment,” says Janson.
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