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OCTOBER 9, 2008

A whole new world
SETI Drake Equation Mauna Keavenn diagram



A planet in the middle of nowhere

A long time ago, in a faraway galaxy, an alien planet was born. This planet was gigantic (approximately eight times bigger than Jupiter), extremely remote, and perpetually shrouded in darkness. Needless to say, it was invisible to us.

So far, so typical: The universe is filled with anonymous planets; the vast majority are cold and remote. But this heavenly body, which is located nearly 3.1 quadrillion miles away from us, is leading scientists to rethink cherished theories about how solar systems develop. Armed with infrared optics, astronomers at the University of Toronto have now glimpsed the planet in striking detail. (Since it’s 500 light-years away, they’re seeing the 16th-century version of it, of course.) It’s so far away from its own sun — 11 times the distance between our sun and Neptune — it’s not entirely clear that the planet’s in orbit at all. And a planet that isn’t chained to something else — that just dangles out in space — would contradict long-held assumptions about how solar systems arise. Planets like Earth coalesce out of leftover stellar dust. But if massive planets can form on their own, the cosmos may well be more crowded than we’ve believed it to be: Those vast, empty spaces between the stars and planets may not be so vast, or so empty, after all.

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