Talk about a long distant relationship.
Scientists have found a planet that is about 600 billion miles from its star or about 7,000 times the distance – or about 7,000 astronomical units - from the Earth to the Sun. That distance between planet and star means this would be the widest solar system ever discovered – dwarfing the likes of Neptune which is only 30 AU from the Sun and Pluto which is 40 AU.
"This is the widest planet system found so far and both the members of it have been known for eight years," University of Hertfordshire’s Niall Deacon said. "But nobody had made the link between the objects before. The planet is not quite as lonely as we first thought, but it's certainly in a very long distance relationship."
The planet, named 2MASS J2126, was identified in 2008 by American-based researchers and later found by Canadian researchers to be a possible member of a 45 million year old group of stars and brown dwarfs known as the Tucana Horologium Association. This made it young and low enough in mass to be classified as a free-floating planet.
That prompted researchers to take a closer look TYC 9486-927-1, which had been identified by Brazilian researchers in 2006 as a young star but hadn’t been well studied.
Deacon, the lead author on the study of the new planet in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, then was able to conclude the star and the planet were associated.
He made this connection through his search for young stars with companions in wide orbits. As part of the work looking for young stars with companions in wide orbits, his team scanned lists of known young stars, brown dwarfs and free-floating planets to see if any of them could be related.
They found that the star TYC 9486-927-1 and 2MASS J2126 are moving through space together and are both about 104 light years from the Earth, would suggest they are linked.
“If this was a system, I was surprised that no one had worked out that these were linked,” Deacon told FoxNews.com. “I contacted a couple of my collaborators and we worked from there to make sure we were absolutely right – that these were related.”
After determining the age of TYC 9486-927-1 between 10 million-year-old and 45 million-years-old, the researchers then able to estimate the mass of 2MASS J2126, finding it to be between 11.6 to 15 times the mass of Jupiter. It means that 2MASS J2126 has a similar mass, age and temperature to one of the first planets directly imaged around another star, beta Pictoris b.
"Compared to beta Pictoris b, 2MASS J2126 is more than 700 times further away from its host star," Simon Murphy of the Australian National University, also a study co-author, said. "But how such a wide planetary system forms and survives remains an open question."
But because it is hot, gaseous and so far away from its star, there is little prospect of life on this new planet.
“It’s a gas giant for a start. It’s similar to Jupiter so it’s highly unlikely that it would have life on it,” Deacon said. “Secondly, it’s a young system, so life probably wouldn’t have had time to evolve even if it could have. Life on Earth has been going for billions of years.”
But even if there isn’t life on the planet, there is plenty to learn about this planet and its far-flung star in the years to come.
“How do you get something like this forming at this separation? We have models of binary stars that can form at this really wide separation. We have models of planets,” Deacon said. “Is this a planet that formed to be close in and got kicked out or something that formed really far out? We don’t know.”