Scientists Discover Drifter Planet Nearby

Astrophysicists have found a planet that doesn't orbit a star, but wanders aimlessly through space.

This artist’s impression shows the free-floating planet CFBDSIR J214947.2-040308.9. (Delorme/Nick Risinger <a href="http://skysurvey.org/">skysurvey.org</a>)
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Scientists at the University of Montreal have discovered a planet with no home wandering through space in close proximity to our solar system.

The astrophysicists describe CFBDSIR2149 as "homeless" — it doesn't orbit a star and is unchained from any gravitational pull, so it drifts through space aimlessly. It is the first such planet to be proven to exist, says Jonathan Gangne´, a doctoral physics student at the school.

"Over the past few years, several objects of this type have been identified, but their existence could not be established without scientific confirmation of their age," Gagne´ said a written statement on the discovery. "Astronomers weren't sure whether to categorize them as planets or as Brown Dwarfs. Brown dwarfs are what we could call failed stars, as they never manage to initiate nuclear reactions in their centres."

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One could see why CFBDSIR2149 might be considered a star. The lonely gas giant is four to seven times the mass of Jupiter, which itself is more than 300 times the size of Earth. Celestial objects are considered brown dwarfs if they are 15 times as big as Jupiter. Astronomers were able to locate and classify CFBDSIR2149 because it's relatively close to our solar system at distance of 100 light years, and because there is no bright light from nearby stars obscuring it.

"Looking for planets around their stars is akin to studying a firefly sitting one centimetre away from a distant, powerful car headlight," Philippe Delorme of the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de l'Observatoire de Grenoble, the lead author of the study, said in another written statement . "This nearby free-floating object offered the opportunity to study the firefly in detail without the dazzling lights of the car messing everything up."

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Delorme and his colleagues first saw images of the planet from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, located near the summit of Mauna Kea mountain in Hawaii. They then used the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope to deduce its mass.

The orphan planet is hot, with an average temperature of 806 degrees Fahrenheit, and young, likely between 50 million and 120 million years old. By comparison, Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old and has an average temperature of about 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Seth Cline is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at scline@usnews.com.