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A Strange Lonely Planet Found without a Star

PSO J318.5-2, the planet without a star

Multicolor image from the Pan-STARRS1 telescope of the free-floating planet PSO J318.5-2, in the constellation of Capricornus. The planet is extremely cold and faint, about 100 billion times fainter in optical light than the planet Venus. Most of its energy is emitted at infrared wavelengths. Credit: N. Metcalfe & Pan-STARRS 1 Science Consortium

An international team of astronomers led by IfA astronomer Michael Liu has discovered an exotic young planet that is not orbiting a star. This free-floating planet, dubbed PSO J318.5-22, is just 80 light-years away from Earth and has a mass only six times that of Jupiter. The planet formed a mere 12 million years ago—a newborn in planet lifetimes.

It was identified from its faint and unique heat signature by the Pan-STARRS 1 (PS1) wide-field survey telescope on Haleakalā, Maui. Follow-up observations using other telescopes in Hawai‘i show that it has properties similar to those of gas-giant planets found orbiting around young stars. And yet PSO J318.5-22 is all by itself, without a host star.

"We have never before seen an object free-floating in space that looks like this. It has all the characteristics of young planets found around other stars, but it is drifting out there all alone,” explained Liu. “I had often wondered if such solitary objects exist, and now we know they do.”

During the past decade, extrasolar planets have been discovered at an incredible pace, with about a thousand found by indirect methods such as wobbling or dimming of their host stars induced by the planet. However, only a handful of planets have been directly imaged, all of which are around young stars (less than 200 million years old). PSO J318.5-22 is one of the lowest-mass free-floating objects known, perhaps the very lowest. But its most unique aspect is its similar mass, color, and energy output to directly imaged planets.

“Planets found by direct imaging are incredibly hard to study, since they are right next to their much brighter host stars. PSO J318.5-22 is not orbiting a star so it will be much easier for us to study. It is going to provide a wonderful view into the inner workings of gas-giant planets like Jupiter shortly after their birth,” said study co-author Niall Deacon of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

PSO J318.5-22 was discovered during a search for the failed stars known as brown dwarfs. Due to their relatively cool temperatures, brown dwarfs are very faint and have very red colors. To circumvent these difficulties, Liu and his colleagues have been mining the data from the PS1 telescope. PS1 is scanning the sky every night with a camera sensitive enough to detect the faint heat signatures of brown dwarfs. PSO J318.5-22 stood out as an oddball, redder than even the reddest known brown dwarfs.

The team followed up the PS1 discovery with multiple telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea. Infrared spectra taken with the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and the Gemini North Telescope showed that PSO J318.5-22 was not a brown dwarf, based on signatures in its infrared light that are best explained by it being young and low-mass.

By regularly monitoring the position of PSO J318.5-22 over two years with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the team directly measured its distance from Earth. Based on this distance, about 80 light-years, and its motion through space, the team concluded that PSO J318.5-22 belongs to a collection of young stars called the Beta Pictoris Moving Group that formed about 12 million years ago. In fact, the eponymous star of the group, Beta Pictoris, has a young gas-giant planet in orbit around it. PSO J318.5-22 is even lower in mass than the Beta Pictoris planet and probably formed in a different fashion.

The other key authors of the paper are Eugene Magnier (IfA), Katelyn Allers (Bucknell University), Trent Dupuy (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), and IfA graduate students Michael Kotson and Kimberly Aller.