Astronomers find smallest 'rogue planet' in the Milky Way

Microlensing impression

Astronomy: Earth-sized rogue planet is discovered roaming the Milky Way without a parent star

While nearly every planet we've ever found orbits a star of some kind, there are some loners that roam the cosmos entirely on their own.

Finds based on gravitational microlensing are rare, since they depend on the astronomer's telescope being in near-perfect alignment with the object and the star, adds Przemek Mroz, the lead author of the study, and a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology. Astronomers can also measure the motion of the star caused by the planet.

"Our discovery demonstrates that low-mass free-floating planets can be detected and characterized using ground-based telescopes", the study's co-author, Prof. It is different from other estimates of habitable planets around the galaxy since they only consider the distance between the planet and its star.

A roughly Earth-sized, "free-floating" planet roaming across the Milky Way - while gravitationally unattached to any star - has been discovered, a study reported.

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Scientists looked at Kepler data and data from the European Space Agency's Gaia mission about how much energy the planet's star emits. Gravitational fields from massive objects like planets can be strong enough to actually bend light like a magnifying glass, so if a background star appears to briefly brighten, it indicates something unseen - like a rogue planet - has passed in front.

Microlensing comes from Einstein's theory of general relativity - a massive object (the lens) may bend the light of a bright background object (the source).

"Chances of observing microlensing are extremely slim because three objects - source, lens, and observer - must be almost perfectly aligned", he added. "Observer on Earth will see a temporary brightening of the source, which we call a gravitational microlensing event".

"That is why modern experiments looking for microlensing phenomena observe hundreds of millions of stars located in the centre of the Milky Way, where the probability of this phenomenon is greatest". Typically, planets have microlensing events that last a few hours. However, the newly-detected planet is the smallest rogue world ever found. Andrzej Udalski, the PI of the OGLE project.

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The very first detection of one of these objects is a huge step towards understanding how many of these rogue worlds are out there in the dark.

Astronomers believe free-floating planets may have formed in the dense gas and dust around stars and were ejected from their parent planetary systems after being pulled by the gravity of other bodies.

The study of lonely planets helps scientists understand the turbulent formation of young planetary systems, such as our solar system.

The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, NASA's upcoming observatory expected to launch in the mid-2020s, could reveal even more rogue planets. 2020, Astrophysical Journal Letters, in press, arXiv:2009.12377 (https://arxiv.org/abs/2009.12377 ).

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