Lonely Planet Spotted Wandering Through Space

A lonely planet was spotted wandering through space with no sun to keep it warm. The planet, labeled PSO J318.5-22, was discovered using the Pan-STARRS 1 wide-field survey telescope on Haleakala, on the island of Maui.

Scientists believe that the planet is about six times the size of Jupiter, and it is about 80 light-years away from Earth. While free-floaters have been seen before, scientists haven’t been able to say whether the object is an orphaned planet or a failed star.

This time, NBC News reports that they are sure the object is a planet. Team leader Michael Liu of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, stated:

“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.”

If scientists wanted proof lonely planets exist, they now have it. ABC Online notes that the newly found planet could have the lowest mass of all known free-floating space objects. Telescopes have shown the planet is similar to gas giants orbiting around young stars.

The lonely planet was discovered while researchers were looking through data from Pan-STARRS 1 for readings taken from brown dwarf stars. These kinds of stars are usually faint and read. However, Lieu and his colleagues found an object that was glowing brighter and more red than known brown dwarfs.

So, they followed up the Pan-STARRs 1 readings with observations using the Gemini North Telescope and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility telescopes on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. From the observations, the team found the object’s infrared signature was more in line with a planet than a star. The object was monitored with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope for two years to find how it was moving and how far it was from Earth.

However it formed, the lonely planet could help scientists better understand other planets that are actually orbiting around stars. This is because the planet’s signature isn’t being overshadowed by its much brighter host star.

[Image via MPIA/V. Ch. Quetz]