‘Forbidden planet’ discovered orbiting impossibly tiny star

Imagine this: you are an interstellar explorer aboard a colony ship heading for Proxima Centauri b, a star located about 4.2 light years from Earth. You expect to wake up on the surface of your new home, ready to take your first steps under an alien sun, having slept soundly for the duration of the journey. Instead, you’re woken up by a damaged ship, a significant portion of the crew missing and presumed dead, and a year remaining on the voyage clock. This is the situation for the crew of the Ark One, the intrepid explorers and humanity’s last hope, who make up the cast of SYFY’s latest sci-fi adventure, The Ark.

Survival would be your main concern, but if you manage to do that, if you can hold on until you reach another star, you will witness wonders that no other human has ever seen up close. One such wonder was recently discovered, not around Proxima Centauri b, but around a much more distant star called TOI-5205.

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The star, which lies about 283 light-years away, is considerably smaller than the Sun and has a correspondingly lower temperature. The star is so small and faint that it cannot be seen with the naked eye, but it is actually representative of most stars in our galaxy. Astronomers estimate that nearly three quarters of the stars in the Milky Way are red dwarfs not too dissimilar to TOI-5205. Due to their abundance, the majority of planets in the Milky Way are thought to orbit this type of star, but our models suggest that gas giants are unlikely to form around them. These notions are now being challenged by the discovery of a Jupiter-sized gas giant orbiting TOI-5205. The discovery was made by a team of astronomers led by Shubham Kanodia of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Posted in The Astronomical Journal.

This isn’t the first time a gas giant has been found around a red dwarf, but it’s the first time one has been found around such a small star. The mass of TOI-5205 is estimated to be about four times that of Jupiter. For comparison, the Sun is about a thousand times more massive than Jupiter. They are a strange couple indeed. So strange, in fact, that astronomers are questioning existing models of planetary formation.

If you turn the clock back enough, you’ll find that the planets ultimately derive from the same source material as their parent stars. In any star-forming region, the star will suck up most of the available material, leaving the dregs spinning in a protoplanetary disk. Once the star is formed, the remaining material has a limited time to transform into planets before gas and dust are dispersed by stellar winds. Since smaller stars necessarily formed from smaller initial pools of material, the planets they support should be smaller on average. From what we know so far, or what we think we know, TOI-5205 should not have had enough material or enough time to form a planet the size of Jupiter. And yet, they are there.

“The existence of TOI-5205b expands what we know about the disks in which these planets originated. In the beginning, if there is not enough rocky material in the disc to form the initial core, then a gas giant planet cannot be formed. And in the end, if the disk evaporates before the massive core is formed, then you can’t form a gas giant planet. And yet TOI-5205b was formed despite these guardrails. Based on our nominal current understanding of planet formation, TOI-5205b should not exist; it’s a ‘forbidden’ planet,” Kanodia said, in a report.

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Astronomers identified the distant exoplanet using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which detects exoplanets by measuring the dimming as they pass between us and their parent star. Typically, exoplanets block less than one percent of a planet’s total brightness as they transit, but TOI-5205b blocked about 7% of its parent star’s light. Astronomers noted that the incredible dimming effect, a measure known as transit depth, makes it a perfect candidate for future observations.

Further study, including observations from NASA’s JWST, could reveal insights into the planet’s atmospheric makeup and possibly even provide answers as to how it broke cosmic rules to form in the first place.

If only we could jump on a boat and go check it out ourselves. Live out your interstellar fantasies vicariously with The Ark! New episodes air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on SYFYand broadcast on Peacock the next day!

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