Astronomers discover the smallest rogue planet yet to whiz through the...

The term rogue planet is applied to planets that do not orbit a star. These planets fly unaccompanied through the galaxy, and astronomers have announced they have discovered the smallest candidate for a rogue planet. The belief that the planet could be smaller than Earth, with a mass somewhere between that of our world and Mars.

If the rogue planet can be confirmed, it would be a milestone in the study of rogue planets believed to be common across the galaxy and beyond but difficult to discover. Andrzej Udalski, co-author of the Rogue Planet study, says the discovery shows that free-floating, low-mass planets can be discovered and characterized using ground-based telescopes. To date, astronomers have discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets, and most of them were found using the “transit method”.

To discover exoplanets, astronomers also use another technique called a gravitational microlens. With this technique, you observe how foreground objects move past a distant background star. When planets bend and enlarge starlight, it can reveal the mass of the foreground object along with other properties. The challenge with this technique is that the alignment of the source, lens and observer must be almost perfect.

Since it is extremely difficult to look at a star using the gravitational microlens, astronomers use an instrument called the OGLE and a 1.3-meter telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile to observe large swaths of the sky around millions of stars in the center of the Milky Way to monitor. Using this technique, the researchers discovered an event called OGLE-2016-BLG-1928 that lasted 42 minutes. It was the shortest microlens event ever discovered, and the researcher says it’s clear that a tiny object must have caused it.

Calculations indicated that the object was between the mass of Mars and Earth, and likely closer to the size of Mars. It was determined that the candidate was likely a rogue planet because if it was orbiting a star, researchers would determine its presence in the light curve of the event. Scientists have been able to rule out that the planet has a star within eight astronomical units. Researchers think and believe that this type of rogue planet is likely to be common

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