The discovery of a planet “too big” for its sun has called into question what was previously understood about the formation of solar systems.
The planet more than 13 times heavier than Earth is orbiting the “ultracool” star LHS 3154, which itself is nine times less massive than the sun.
The mass ratio of the newly found planet with its host star is more than 100 times higher than that of Earth and the sun, say scientists.
The findings, published in the journal Science, reveal the most massive known planet in a close orbit around an ultracool dwarf star, the least massive and coldest stars in the universe.
It goes against what current theories would predict for planet formation around small stars and marks the first time a planet with such high mass has been spotted orbiting such a low-mass star.
Co-author Professor Suvrath Mahadevan, of Penn State University in the US, said: “This discovery really drives home the point of just how little we know about the universe.
“We wouldn’t expect a planet this heavy around such a low-mass star to exist.”
Mahadevan explained that stars are formed from large clouds of gas and dust.
After the star is formed, the gas and dust remain as disks of material orbiting the newborn star, which can eventually develop into planets.
He said: “The planet-forming disk around the low-mass star LHS 3154 is not expected to have enough solid mass to make this planet.
“But it’s out there, so now we need to reexamine our understanding of how planets and stars form.”
(Penn State University via SWNS)
The researchers spotted the oversized planet, named LHS 3154b, using an astronomical spectrograph built at Penn State by a team of scientists led by Mahadevan.
The instrument, called the Habitable Zone Planet Finder or HPF, was designed to detect planets orbiting the coolest stars outside our solar system with the potential for having liquid water – a key ingredient for life – on their surfaces.
While such planets are very difficult to detect around stars like our sun, the research team say that the low temperature of ultracool stars means that planets capable of having liquid water on their surface are much closer to their star relative to Earth and the sun.
Mahadevan explained that the shorter distance between those planets and their stars, combined with the low mass of the ultracool stars, results in a detectable signal announcing the presence of the planet.
He said: “Think about it like the star is a campfire.
“The more the fire cools down, the closer you’ll need to get to that fire to stay warm.
“The same is true for planets. If the star is colder, then a planet will need to be closer to that star if it is going to be warm enough to contain liquid water.
“If a planet has a close enough orbit to its ultracool star, we can detect it by seeing a very subtle change in the colour of the star’s spectra or light as it is tugged on by an orbiting planet.”
Located at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas, the HPF provides some of the highest precision measurements to date of such infrared signals from nearby stars.
Lead author Dr Guðmundur Stefánsson, NASA Sagan Fellow in Astrophysics at Princeton University, said: “Making the discovery with HPF was extra special, as it is a new instrument that we designed, developed and built from the ground-up for the purpose of looking at the uncharted planet population around the lowest mass stars.
“Now we are reaping the rewards, learning new and unexpected aspects of this exciting population of planets orbiting some of the most nearby stars.”
He said the instrument has already yielded “critical” information in the discovery and confirmation of new planets, but the discovery of the planet LHS 3154b exceeded all expectations.
Co-author Megan Delamer, an astronomy graduate student at Penn State, said: “Based on current survey work with the HPF and other instruments, an object like the one we discovered is likely extremely rare, so detecting it has been really exciting.
“Our current theories of planet formation have trouble accounting for what we’re seeing.”
She said that in the case of the planet discovered orbiting LHS 3154, the heavy planetary core inferred by the team’s measurements would require a larger amount of solid material in the planet-forming disk than current models would predict.
The team said their findings also raise questions about previous understandings of the formation of stars, as the dust-mass and dust-to-gas ratio of the disk surrounding stars such as LHS 3154 – when they were young and newly formed – would need to be 10 times higher than what was observed in order to form a planet as massive as the one they discovered.
Mahadevan added: “What we have discovered provides an extreme test case for all existing planet formation theories.
“This is exactly what we built HPF to do, to discover how the most common stars in our galaxy form planets – and to find those planets.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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