The detection of a massive exoplanet orbiting a small star has upended conventional theories surrounding planet formation. The findings, published recently in the journal Nature, challenge current understanding of planet formation and suggest that exoplanets can form at a much greater distance from their host stars than previously thought possible.
The exoplanet, known as HD 106906b, is 13 times the mass of Jupiter and situated at 650 astronomical units (AU) away from its hos star. An astronomical unit is the average distance between Earth and the Sun, or about 93 million miles. To put that into perspective, Pluto, the most distant planet in our own solar system, orbits the Sun from just over five times that distance.
The discovery of this planet has stunned scientists. According to traditional planet formation theory, planets usually form within a disk of gas and dust orbiting a star, and there should not be enough material to create a planet so far out.
The researchers discovered the planet using the direct imaging method, which involves taking multiple images of distant stars and looking for a faint dot that could indicate an orbiting planet unpolluted by its host star.
The planet is surrounded by a huge debris disk, possibly caused by the planet’s gravity stirring up the material that is supposed to be orbiting closer to the star.
This new understanding of planetary formation could mean that exoplanets orbit their host stars at a much greater distance that previously thought, effectively increasing the “real estate” for finding life-harboring planets beyond the planets that orbit our own star.
Despite the groundbreaking discovery, many questions remain. For instance, how did the planet form so far away from its host star? Scientists have yet to provide an explanation for why this would occur, but the search for answers is just beginning.