Hiding In Plain Sight: Dutch Astronomers Accidentally Discover an Infant Exoplanet – But They Were Looking for Something Else

Wednesday, 09 May 2018 - 12:00PM
Astronomy
Space
Wednesday, 09 May 2018 - 12:00PM
Hiding In Plain Sight: Dutch Astronomers Accidentally Discover an Infant Exoplanet – But They Were Looking for Something Else
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NASA/JPL-Caltech
Despite thoroughly scanning our galaxy (and beyond) to spot hidden exoplanets revealed by the subtle dips in star brightness and Doppler shifts, astronomers may have missed one right in front of their faces. This "new" exoplanet is one of the few ever discovered that's directly visible to optical cameras, and shows up clearly in recent photos. Embarrassingly enough, it's already been photographed twice in the past two decades – but for some reason, no one ever bothered asking what it was.

It all started with the binary star system called CS Cha, which is young enough to still have a protoplanetary disk around it. (In the grand scheme of the universe, being 2-3 million years old is considered "young.").

For those who aren't familiar, a protoplanetary disk is a ring of dust and dense gas that forms the building blocks of future planets. Recent photos of the system showed that CS Cha already had at least one object orbiting it – astronomers just weren't sure what it was, exactly. Based on observations (and a look at previous photos of the system), astronomers realized it's probably either a brown dwarf – a type of failed star that isn't able to create hydrogen fusion – or a type of gas giant called a "super-Jupiter" still in the process of growing.

The difficulty in pinning down this exoplanet lies in the fact that it's shrouded in dust. According to astronomer Christian Ginski:

Opening quote
"We suspect that the companion is surrounded by his own dust disc. The tricky part is that the disc blocks a large part of the light and that is why we can hardly determine the mass of the companion. So it could be a brown dwarf but also a super-Jupiter in his toddler years. The classical planet-forming-models can't help us."
Closing quote


Situations like CS Cha give hope to all the aspiring astronomers and citizen scientists sifting through NASA and Google's Kepler data to find hidden exoplanets. If experienced astronomers can miss something this obvious, then who knows what may be lurking in the spreadsheets?

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