A planet in an unlikely orbit around a double star 336 light-years away may offer a clue to a mystery much closer to home: a hypothesized, distant body in our solar system dubbed “Planet Nine.”
This is the first time that astronomers have been able to measure the motion of a massive Jupiter-like planet that is orbiting very far away from its host stars and visible debris disk. This disk is similar to our Kuiper Belt of small, icy bodies beyond Neptune. In our own solar system, the suspected Planet Nine would also lie far outside of the Kuiper Belt on a similarly strange orbit. Though the search for a Planet Nine continues, this exoplanet discovery is evidence that such oddball orbits are possible.
The 11-Jupiter-mass exoplanet called HD 106906 b was discovered in 2013 with the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in the Atacama Desert of Chile. However, astronomers did not know anything about the planet’s orbit. This required something only the Hubble Space Telescope could do: collect very accurate measurements of the vagabond’s motion over 14 years with extraordinary precision. The team used data from the Hubble archive that provided evidence for this motion.
The exoplanet resides extremely far from its host pair of bright, young stars—more than 730 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun, or nearly 68 billion miles. This wide separation made it enormously challenging to determine the 15,000-year-long orbit in such a relatively short time span of Hubble observations. The planet is creeping very slowly along its orbit, given the weak gravitational pull of its very distant parent stars.
So how did the exoplanet arrive at such a distant and strangely inclined orbit? The prevailing theory is that it formed much closer to its stars, about three times the distance that the Earth is from the Sun. But drag within the system’s gas disk caused the planet’s orbit to decay, forcing it to migrate inward toward its stellar pair. The gravitational effects from the whirling twin stars then kicked it out onto an eccentric orbit that almost threw it out of the system and into the void of interstellar space. Then a passing star from outside the system stabilized the exoplanet’s orbit and prevented it from leaving its home system.