An enormous exoplanet around 300 light years away from Earth is on the verge of being ejected from the edge of it’s Solar system. The Planet known as HD 106906b is now around 650 times further away from it’s own Star than our Earth is away from the Sun and 16 times further away than Pluto is from our Sun! What has caused this and does this occur on a regular basis?
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Scientists suspect giant gravitational nudgesfrom another planet—or perhaps from a passing star—sent it zooming outward. It’s the same kind of process that scientists blame for the billions of rogue, starless worlds that wander our galaxy. They’ve just never really seen it in action.
“This whole picture of a dynamically disturbed planetary system is tremendously exciting,” says the SETI Institute’s Paul Kalas, who was part of the team that observed the planet using the Gemini Planet Imager in the Chilean Andes.
The planet is about 11 times more massive than Jupiter and orbits a star a bit bigger than the sun. Yet at only 13 million years old, the system is much younger than our own. Nearer the star is a stirred-up disk of comets that astronomers think is like a larger, more chaotic version of our solar system’s Kuiper Belt, the icy region beyond the orbit of Neptune where Pluto and countless other worlds reside.
“We think the whole system has been recently disturbed by some violent gravitational interaction,” says Kalas, who is also affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.
In fact, observations suggest it’s possible that as the planet got punted from the system, it took some of the debris from that icy comet disk for a ride, says Abhijith Rajan, a graduate student at Arizona State University. It’s dustier than expected, and could be surrounded by a large ring or debris cloud.
Normally, the planetary bodies orbiting a young star sit in the same relatively flat plane, kind of like the grooves on a vinyl record; that means HD 106906b should be in the same plane as the exo-Kuiper Belt. But in addition to being on the extreme fringe, the planet hovers far, far above the dusty belt. That means it either formed way out there (which astronomers think is unlikely) or that some kind of gravitational kerfuffle tossed it from its early neighborhood.