JWST spots large planets free-floating in space

Astronomers have just discovered dozens of Jupiter-sized objects without host stars.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has documented approximately 40 pairs of planets of Jupiter size that are freely floating in the cosmos, not bound to any star.

Dubbed “Jupiter Mass Binary Objects” or “JuMBOs,” these objects were spotted as far as 1,400 light years away from Earth, in the Orion Nebula, scientists said in three independent but yet related studies (here, here, and here).

The discovery has puzzled researchers, who – firstly – cannot explain their synchronized movement in pairs and – secondly – have no clue yet why they are not attached to stars.

The JWST observed approximately 40 pairs of these bodies in a detailed survey of the Orion Nebula, which is just 1,400 light-years away from Earth. The objects present a puzzling phenomenon for astronomers.

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One hypothesis suggests the JuMBOs originated in low-density nebula areas that are incapable of birthing stars, though gravitational forces are able to gather the dispersed materials to form a planet.

Another theory posits that they initially formed around stars but were later ejected into interstellar space due to various celestial interactions; the second proposal is the one favored at the moment by the astronomic community.

The discovery challenges established models of planetary system development, as the leading space agencies currently lack credible models predicting the expulsion of binary planetary pairs or technology to observe such phenomena.

JWST is the first telescope powerful enough to see the “free” planets, playing a pivotal role in the discovery. Its NIRCam instrument has collected a mosaic of 700 observations over a week, providing an extensive view of the Orion Nebula.

This region is the nearest expansive star-forming area to Earth and houses numerous young stars encircled by dense gas and dust discs with the early conditions for planet formation.

“A key outstanding question in star and planet formation is how far the initial mass function of stars and sub-stellar objects extends, and whether or not there is a cut-off at the very lowest masses. Isolated objects in the planetary-mass domain below 13 Jupiter masses, where not even deuterium can fuse, are very challenging to observe as these objects are inherently faint,” one research says.

Nearby star-forming regions provide the best opportunity to search for them though: while they are young, they are still relatively warm and luminous at infrared wavelengths, astronomers noted.

The discovery of JuMBOs by the JWST fuels new inquiries about planetary development and the mechanisms responsible for ejection of binary bodies into space. It turns out that this chapter of our understanding of space is still in the writing.

The studies involved scientists at the European Space Agency, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Canadian Space Agency, as well as counterparts from other nations.


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