New images of rogue planets floating together – but no one knows why

By John Mercury October 3, 2023

Scientists say they have discovered planet-like objects in a distant nebula unconnected to any star to orbit – and floating in pairs.

Images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) show the Orion Nebula in the clearest detail yet, and researchers say closer investigations throw up a surprising phenomenon.

Around 40 gassy “planets” have been spotted with another planet in a distant tandem orbit, despite no obvious body pulling either into its gravity elsewhere.

The planets, some of which are roughly the size of Jupiter, have been dubbed JuBMOs – or Jupiter-Mass Binary Objects – by European Space Agency scientists Samuel Pearson and Mark McCaughrean.

Mr Pearson, who is part of the team unpacking the data, told Sky News he’s been taken aback by “just how unexpected this discovery is”.

“Brilliant scientists have been working on theories and models of star and planet formation for decades,” he said.

“But none of them has ever predicted that we would find pairs of super low mass objects floating alone in space – and we’re seeing lots of them.

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“The main thing that we learn from this is that there is something fundamentally wrong with either our understanding of planet formation, star formation, or both.”

Rogue planets are not a new discovery, but how or why they have paired up is a mystery.

The objects are too small to be considered stars, but it also shouldn’t be possible to form planets of this size inside the nebula, according to current theories.

“We know that we can see JuMBOs, they are right there in the images, but we do not know how they have formed,” Mr Pearson said.

“In terms of their mass, they sit in the gap in between stars and planets, but our current understanding of how stars and planets form cannot explain their existence.”

The JWST captured the new images through its near-infrared camera, with short and long wavelength channels.

The image taken in a short wavelength channel. Pic: NASA/ESA/CSA /M. McCaughrean, S. Pearson
Image:
The image taken in a short wavelength channel. Pic: NASA/ESA/CSA /M. McCaughrean, S. Pearson

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One theory by Mr Pearson and Mr McCaughrean looks into the idea that these planets were “ejected” from a host star, which is how scientists believe singular rogue planets find themselves floating alone.

“Ejections can be caused through planet scattering in the disk or by dynamical interactions between stars,” the report exploring the theory adds.

“However, how pairs of young planets can be ejected simultaneously and remain bound, albeit weakly at relatively wide separations, remains quite unclear.”

The Orion Nebula, also known as Messier 42, is more than 1,300 light years away from Earth.

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