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Oct 10, 2013 04:10 PM EDT

Free-Floating Planet 6 Times the Size of Jupiter Found in Deep Space Not Orbiting Any Kind of Star


PSO J318.5-22 may only be a young exoplanet floating deep in space, but it has caught astronomers' attention for appearing to not be orbiting a star of any kind, reported.

Researchers spotted the planet with the Pan-STARRS 1 (PS1) telescope, perched atop the Haleakala volcano in Maui, Hawaii. The astronomers picked it up from heat signatures 80 light years away from Earth while searching for Brown dwarfs.

The planet is relatively young at 12 millions years old, but like Jupiter, it is a gas giant, only about six times more massive.

"We have never before seen an object free-floating in space that that looks like this. It has all the characteristics of young planets found around other stars, but it is drifting out there all alone," study researcher Michael Liu, of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said in a statement. "I had often wondered if such solitary objects exist, and now we know they do."

Including the new discovery, scientists have only been able to observe a handful of planets outside the solar system with direct imaging. The absence of a bright star may actually be of help to the researchers studying the new PSO planet.

Methods of indirect imaging include watching for dips in starlight, occurring when another star moves in front of it, temporarily dimming it.

"Planets found by direct imaging are incredibly hard to study, since they are right next to their much brighter host stars," Niall Deacon, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, explained in a statement. "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."

Some astronomers suggest tens of billions of exoplanets exist outside our solar system and, given the infinite expanse of space, they may not be wrong. Still, over the past decades, their discoveries have boomed, with astronomers confirming about 800 in that timeframe.

The researchers were conducting a survey of brown dwarfs, which are also known as "failed stars" because they are too big to be planets and too cold to become stars.

"We often describe looking for rare celestial objects as akin to searching for a needle in a haystack," Eugene Magnier of the Institute for Astronomy said in a statement. "So we decided to search the biggest haystack that exists in astronomy, the dataset from PS1."

Despite its largeness compared to one of our solar system's biggest planet, PSO J318.5-22 is actually one of the smallest free-floating objects ever observed in space.

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