RIO – An international team of scientists, led by Polish astronomers, announced the discovery of the smallest floating planet (similar in size to Earth) discovered to date.
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It was found in the Milky Way and it is an errant planet, that is, gravitationally disconnected from any star. An article about the discovery was published in the scientific journal “Astrophysical Journal Letters” on Thursday (29).
The planet was identified by researchers from the OGLE team, from the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Warsaw, and named OGLE-2016-BLG-1928.
Additional observations collected by the Korea Microlens Telescope Network (KMTNet) were also needed for identification.
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Planets that are not in the Solar System can rarely be observed directly. Typically, astronomers find these planets using observations from the light of the host star. When a planet crosses in front of its parent star, it blocks the observed brightness, which occurs periodically.
Since wandering planets practically emit no radiation and do not orbit any stars, they cannot be discovered using traditional astrophysical detection methods. But they can be located using an astronomical phenomenon called a gravitational microlens.
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The micro lens is a result of Einstein’s theory of relativity. A massive object, the lens, can bend light from an object with a bright background, the source. The gravity of the lens acts like a huge magnifying glass that bends and expands the light from distant stars.
“If a massive object (a star or planet) passes between an Earth-based observer and a distant source star, its gravity can deflect and focus the light from the source. The observer will measure a brief brightness of the source star, ”explains Przemek Mroz, a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and lead author of the study.
Using this method, OGLE astronomers provided the first evidence of a large population of wandering planets in the Milky Way a few years ago. But the newly detected planet is the smallest ever found.
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“Our discovery demonstrates that low-mass floating planets can be detected and characterized using terrestrial telescopes,” said Andrzej Udalski, leader of the OGLE project.
Astronomers suspect that wandering planets actually formed in protoplanetary disks around the stars, as “common” planets, and were ejected from their original planetary systems after gravitational interactions with other bodies, such as other planets in the same system .
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Theories of planet formation predict that wandering planets should typically be smaller than Earth. Thus, studying these planets allows us to better understand the past of young planetary systems, such as our Solar System.
The search for wandering planets is one of the objectives of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is being built by NASA. The observatory is scheduled to start operations in the mid-2020s.