Webb Telescope Makes 'Baffling' Discovery

Scientists announce discovery of planet-sized objects unexplained by existing theories
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 3, 2023 11:22 AM CDT
Updated Oct 7, 2023 12:10 PM CDT
Physics Says They Shouldn't Exist. Yet Here They Are
An infrared composite image of the inner Orion Nebula and Trapezium Cluster as captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.   (NASA/ESA/CSA/McCaughrean & Pearson)

The James Webb Space Telescope has shown us the most distant black holes known to exist, new exoplanets, possible planets in the making—and now, planet-sized objects previously unknown and unaccounted for by existing theories. Nearly 150 planet-like "Jupiter Mass Binary Objects," or JuMBOs—far too small to be stars, yet not technically planets as they're not in orbit around a star—have been spotted in the Orion Nebula that's 1,344 light years away, often in pairs, as described in a preprint, reports the New York Times. Just 1 million years old, they are gassy and hot, with surface temperatures of roughly 1,000 degrees Celsius, though rapidly cooling, per the Guardian. The weird thing is that existing theories of star and planetary formation don't account for such small, paired, free-floating objects.

As the Guardian explains, "the smallest stars are about 80 Jupiter masses, below which the core is not dense enough to fuse hydrogen." While "smaller objects can coalesce through the same process ... theoretical predications suggest that the lower boundary for an object forming through a star-like gravitational collapse is about three to seven Jupiter masses." "We find [JuMBOs] down as small as one Jupiter mass, even half a Jupiter mass," head of the discovery team Mark McCaughrean of the European Space Agency tells the outlet. "Physics says you can't even make objects that small." JuMBOs may have been ejected from a planetary disc around a star, per the BBC. However, 42 JuMBOs have been found in binary pairs, an unlikely result from such chaos, experts say.

"My reactions ranged from: 'Whaaat?!?' to 'Are you sure?" to 'That's just so weird!' to 'How could binaries be ejected together?'" Heidi Hammel, vice president for science at AURA Astronomy, who was not involved in the research, tells the BBC. "It seems that there's a mechanism that's forming these [objects] that we haven't thought of yet," adds Matthew Bate, head of astrophysics at the University of Exeter, who was not involved in the research, per the Guardian. "This is really a very, very surprising result and we're going to learn a lot from it." Without a host star, the JuMBOs will eventually turn very cold. For a brief time, they'll likely reach temperatures suitable for habitability, but they're not likely to host life because, as gas giants, they do not have liquid water. (Read more discoveries stories.)

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