Scientists recently spotted what is perhaps the most fragile long-distance relationship ever.
A lonely planet researchers believed was a free-floating, rogue orphan turns out to be part of the widest orbit ever found. After a decade-long search, they finally found the planet’s very distant parent star — billions of miles away, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
At the same time, scientists spotted the largest known solar system, BBC News added.
The planet (an exoplanet called 2MASS) and its star (a red dwarf called TYC 9486-927-1), were both found about eight years ago, but no one knew that the two had a secret long-distance relationship, said lead researcher Niall Deacon.
In 2014, researchers determined that the lonely orphan plant was possibly a member of a group they called the Tucana Horologium Association, but they weren’t able to confirm it. They also didn’t know whether the red dwarf was a member either, and this made both of them very unique.
But then astronomers found something interesting: both of these bodies were located 104 light years from our Sun. And then another clue: 2MASS J2126 and TYC 9486-927-1 were moving together, Popular Mechanics added.
What they had discovered was the widest orbit known to man. Only a handful of wide pairs like these two have been found in recent years, and this one is three times the size of the previous widest orbit.
“The planet is not quite as lonely as we first thought, but it’s certainly in a very long distance relationship,” Deacon said.
The distance between these two is hard to imagine — 621 billion miles.
The planet is a gas giant like Jupiter or Uranus, but much larger; scientists estimate that 2MASS J2126 is up to 15 times the size of Jupiter. Its orbit is so enormous that this lonely exoplanet takes almost a million Earth years to complete it.
For some context, consider this: this widest orbit is 6,900 times further than the distance between the Earth and its Sun. And it’s 140 times wider than our most distant planetary body — Pluto.
That means its parent star is so far away that if someone was hanging out on 2MASS J2126 gazing into the sky, the red dwarf would be mere a dim fleck in a sea of black, no brighter than any other star.
So how does an orbit qualify as the widest? Scientists actually have a standard to figure that out and have determined that exoplanets have the widest orbits in the galaxy if their star is 1,000 astronomical units from their star. Only four have met this standard. 2MASS J2126 beats it by a huge margin — it’s 4,500 AU away from its red dwarf, and the next widest orbit is 2,000 AU.
Scientists are still trying to figure out how these long-distance lovers even met. Dr. Simon Murphy calls the mystery of how such an enormous solar system formed and then actually survived an “open question,” and it challenges how astronomers currently think about how planetary systems are created in general.
“There is no way it formed in the same way as our solar system did, from a large disc of dust and gas,” he said.
Scientists theorize that the widest orbit ever found was created — like most relationships — by chance. Much like a friend setting you up on a date, they think a strand of gas actually pushed the two together somewhere between 10 million to 45 million years ago.
And their relationship is very fragile, as most that must endure over long distances. Scientists determined that the two bodies in this orbit are just barely “bound together.” And if a nearby star comes by, it would completely disrupt this “tenuous” connection.
In other words, the neighborhood in which both were found is probably pretty empty.
[Photo by Getty Images]