Alone in Space: Free-Floating Planet Discovered

Celestial drifter baffles and excites astronomers

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V. Ch. Quetz / MPIA

Artist's conception of PSO J318.5-22.

Galileo Galilei fought colleagues and the Roman Inquisition to defend the theory that planets orbit around stars — four-hundred years later, what would he have made of the discovery of a strange planet, floating by itself a mere 80 light-years away from Earth?

“I had often wondered if such solitary objects exist, and now we know they do,” said Dr. Michael Liu, leader of the international team of astronomers at the Maui telescope that found the exotic celestial body.

While PSO J318.5-22, as the planet is called, might not actually upend the heliocentric worldview (it seems to have broken away from a collection of young stars), it presents a unique opportunity to scientists: Because it is not caught in any star’s glare, it allows for the first close study of a young — and very lonely — gas-giant planet.

[Institute of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii]