What ho, a lonely planet for sure! Or pretty sure.
One would think that a planet that got loose in the cosmos, free of any star's gravity well, would in no time freeze up solid as a caribou's tundra-pie in January dark and darned near invisible. But a French astronomical team says it has found a fairly young one still glowing faintly in the infrared from the heat released as it congealed from dust and gas. It has a mass of roughly 4 to 7 times that of Jupiter they say. It is about 130 light years away and is near the AB Doradus star cluster. It might even be a member of it. Conceivably it was not even born as a planet agglomerated from leftovers orbiting a star but contracted all by itself as an itty bitty byproduct of a busy star-forming region. The astronomers say they call it a planet because the nomenclature of their trade says anything in this mass range is a planet regardless of provenance. If you look at the paper down in Grist, one infers they are asking for somebody to rethink the official jargon.
This is not the first time astronomers say they've seen such a thing, although this one may be the least massive so far and the closest. The astronomers also got an artists to paint it. So this is just eye candy of no particular use other than to spur media into covering the news. Don't call me cynical. This is a rather charming piece of news and it'd be hard to anybody to avoid those metaphors.
Press tends to call it either a rogue planet or an orphan. Scoundrel or waif take your pick. But that's quite a spread in imagery. And each metaphor seems a bit presumptuous. Rogue does mean wanderer but in the sense of a tramp and rather disreputable, and first definitions for it include simply untrustworthy and of low character generally. Orphan elicits awww a pitiful young'un that lost its mama. So judgmental. Rogue is in the press release. It could be a proud, douty little explorer! Or just a ball of gas and dust displaying no anthropomorphic parallel at all. Perhaps nomad is the best common term to use, such as in previous bouts of news on these things. Given the press release nudge toward rogue, few reporters appear to have sought alternatives.
- Universe Today - Nancy Atkinson: New Rogue Planet Found, Closest to our Solar System ; Atkinson implies that all rogue planets are ones that were forcibly ejected from another solar system.
- LA Times - Amina Khan: Giant rogue planet, without a home star, may roam nearby heavens ; This says the formation process is a mystery - but it could be ejection from near a star.
- BBC - 'Rogue planet' spotted 100 light years away ; Good job, quotes that are not on any press release I saw. Dunno why no byline.
- Gizmag - Darren Quick: First rogue planet discovered ; Thought I had a case here of terrible reporting or rewriting. It is not the first one. But the hed has the errors, the story does not.
- Register (UK) Richard Chirgwin: Rogue Planet Without a Sun Spotted in Interstellar Space / Blue world all alone just 100 light years away ; Hmmm. Is it really blue? The painting has it blue but the painting also is make believe. The spectra are in the infrared. The ESO press release comes with a caption that says it is in the bluer part of the IR spectrum, but if you saw it, it'd hardly show up but if you looked hard it would be a very deep red. Looks like Chirgwin headline is wrong. His story calls it a blue dot against the black of space. Also wrong.
- Voice of America Science World - Rick Pantaleo: Astronomers Identify Orphan Exoplanet Close to Our Solar System ; Closest so far is not the same as close. This is also not the only story to use a quote identical to one in the press release. Once upon a time to do so without identifying it as a quote provided by an institution, in a statement, and not heard with one's own ears was outside ethical boundaries at large media, a firing offense even. Not anymore. Not that Mr. Pantaleo or somebody else at VofA should be fired but one is sorry to see such professional erosion so widespread these days. At least the story does not call it a rogue.
A Few Examples of Previous Stories:
- Christian Science Monitor (February 24, 2012) Pete Spotts: Could free-floating 'nomad' planets carry seeds of life in the universe? Nice job. And instructive. This ran last February, and is a a round-up of,and think piece on, the growing previous evidence that free-floating planets exist.
- Universe Today (May 31, 2012) Jason Major: Worlds Without Suns: Nomad Planets Could Number in The Quadrillions ;
- Charlie Petit