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Astronomers spot a lonely planet, with no star of its own

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11/20/2012 11:40 AM
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Astronomers spot a lonely planet, with no star of its own
There's an orphan planet roaming our galactic neighbourhood.

It's a globe of gas about the size of Jupiter, astronomers say. And it's out there by its lonesome, untethered to any star, drifting about 100 light-years from Earth. In astronomical terms, that's close.

Astronomers have spied lonely planets before. But this newest object, seen near the southern constellation Dorado, is the closest to Earth yet found.

Unobscured by starlight, the new planet — it has no name, just a catalogue number — provides a perfect opportunity for astronomers to learn about the mysterious class of "substellar objects." Such rogue bodies might number in the billions in our galaxy alone.

Advertisement "There could really be a lot of them," said Christian Veillet, former director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, who studied the lonely planet. "But it's a big challenge in terms of observing them."

That's because these drifting bodies are dark. With no home star, they reflect no starlight, nor do they generate any. But, like an iron pulled from a fire, the youngest of these objects still glow with the heat of their creation.

In 2009, astronomers in Hawaii spied such a heat signal with an infrared camera. Another team at the Paranal Observatory in Chile then swung a big telescope around to take a peek.

They detected a planet-like object, estimated to be as big around as Jupiter but perhaps four to seven times as massive. Instruments sensed ammonia, methane and water vapour in the object's atmosphere — typical of Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus, the gas-giant planets in our own solar system.

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