A directly imaged orphan planet!
An international team of astronomers has discovered a young planet that is not orbiting a star. It was identified from its faint and unique heat signature by the Pan-STARRS 1 (PS1) wide-field survey telescope on Haleakala, Maui.
In a news release issued by the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, team leader Michael Liu of the IfA, said: “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.” He added, “I had often wondered if such solitary objects exist, and now we know they do.”
The free-floating planet, dubbed PSO J318.5-22, is 80 light-years away from Earth and has a mass six times that of Jupiter. The planet formed a mere 12 million years ago–a newborn in planet lifetimes.
After Pan-STARRS identified it, follow-up observations using other telescopes in Hawaii found it has properties similar to those of gas-giant planets found orbiting around young stars. Even so, PSO J318.5-22 is all by itself, without a host star.
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.
Eugene Magnier of Manoa’s IfA and a co-author of the study, said in the release: “We often describe looking for rare celestial objects as akin to searching for a needle in a haystack. So we decided to search the biggest haystack that exists in astronomy, the dataset from PS1.” Magnier leads the data processing team for PS1, which produces the equivalent of 60,000 iPhone photos every night. The total dataset to date is about 4,000 Terabytes — bigger than the sum of the digital version of all the movies ever made, all books ever published, and all the music albums ever released.
The team followed up the PS1 discovery with multiple telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii island. 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 discovery paper of PSO J318.5-22 is being published by Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1310.0457. The other key authors of the paper are Katelyn Allers (Bucknell University), Trent Dupuy (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), and Michael Kotson and Kimberly Aller (University of Hawaii at Manoa).