Montreal group finds lonely planet lost in space 130 light-years from Earth
By TOM SPEARS, Postmedia News November 15, 2012
Montreal astronomers have found a lonely planet drifting through space without a solar system to call home.
It is 130 light-years from Earth, four light-years from the nearest star, in a region so dark it's invisible to ordinary telescopes. But the new "rogue" planet, called CFBDSIR 2149, gave away its position because it is warm - about 400 C - and heat shows up on infrared telescopes.
Étienne Artigau of the Uni-versité de Montréal and his group discovered it through the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. The team leader is from the Lab-oratoire d'Astrophysique de l'Observatoire de Grenoble.
"We've suspected for some time that objects like this exist," René Doyon, a senior astronomer at the UdM, said. In fact, large objects have been detected in more distant parts of space.
But this is the first one that's planet-sized and not too far from Earth.
The new planet is about the size of Jupiter, but it's believed to weigh between four and seven times more than Jupiter. The astronomers think it has a rocky centre surrounded by dense gas, which is the source of its heat.
It's probably round, Doyon said, but they can't be sure.
Planets like this are known as gas giants and are generally not considered candidates for finding alien life.
Did the planet somehow lose its star?
"We don't know," Doyon said. One possibility is that it was once part of a solar system but was somehow jolted away from its home. But it may never have orbited a star in the first place.
It's floating slowly through space as part of a "moving group" of objects that are drifting along together, allowing astronomers to hypothesize it's the same age as the rest of the group. That would make it 50 million to 120 million years old - very young in space terms.
If there are other homeless planets drifting through space, they could be very hard to detect. Planets near Earth are visible because they reflect sunlight.
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And the search for planets just got more interesting.....