Scientists Just Discovered A Solar System Bigger Than Ours – Much Bigger

Science has discovered a solar system much larger than our own – much, much larger. On Tuesday, the Royal Astronomical Society announced that a team of scientists from the US, UK and Australia had linked a towering planet – 2MASS J2126 – to a star called TYC 9486-927-1. The star is a few trillion kilometers from 2MASS J2126, or 7,000 times farther than us from the sun. The planet is thought to have between 11.6 and 15 times the mass of Jupiter.

“This is the largest planetary system discovered to date, and its two members have been known for eight years,” said the paper’s lead author, Niall Deacon, in the announcement, “but no one has had linked the objects before. The planet is not as lonely as we first thought, but it is certainly in a very long distance relationship.”

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With his subtle relational pun, Deacon references 2MASS J2126’s previous status as a lonely planet – a starless rogue world to circle, which floats rather freely around the Milky Way. 2MASS J2126, according to the announcement, would take about 900,000 Earth years to complete an orbit around its “sun”. The two are so distant from each other that no one has ever connected them.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

But now that we know about this huge, albeit nearly empty, solar system, another question arises: Could this once lonely planet be home to extraterrestrial life? In a 2014 episode of Cosmos: A Space-Time OdysseyTwitter-savvy astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed lonely planets.

“They are orphans, driven from their parent stars during the chaotic birth of their native solar system,” he said. “Rogue planets are molten at the core, but frozen at the surface. There may be oceans of liquid water in the area between these extremes. Who knows what might be swimming there?”

For a planet to support life, it needs water. Some lonely planets might have this, if they are shrouded in an insulating layer – like ice or atmosphere – thick enough to trap the heat generated at their core. But the RAS thinks the chances of 2MASS J2126 harboring extraterrestrial life are slim.

“There are few prospects for life on an exotic world like this,” the ad said, “but all inhabitants would see their ‘sun’ only as a shining star, and might not even imagine that they’re connected to it at all.”

Once a lonely planet, always a lonely planet.

Arline J. Mercier