‘Monster’ Planet Challenges Formation Theory

Technically, this huge planet should not exist. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On the 31st of October it was announced that an international team of astronomers had made the astonishing discovery of the ‘monster’ planet NGTS-1b, a gas giant the size of Jupiter situated six hundred light years away from us and orbiting a star only half the size of our Sun.

NGTS-1b – a planet whose existence had been considered to be extremely unlikely given the formation theory currently accepted by astronomers around the world, which states that a planet of this size should not be formed by such a small star – is officially the largest planet compared to the size of its companion star “ever discovered in the universe” to date.

It was discovered through the use of the state-of-the-art Next-Generation Transit Survey observation facility, a compact ensemble of telescopes situated in the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, and is run by the Universities of Warwick, Leicester and Cambridge, the Queen’s University Belfast, the Observatoire de Genève, DLR Berlin and the Universidad de Chile.

Using the data they collected, they tracked NGTS-1b’s orbit around its star, and calculated its size, position and mass by measuring the radial velocity of its star

The University of Warwick’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Group, led by Dr. Daniel Bayliss and Professor Peter Wheatley, played a central role in the detection of NGTS-1b. Their researchers were able to identify the existence of the planet by monitoring patches of the night sky over many months, detecting red light from the star with innovative red-sensitive cameras, and in doing so noticed that the light emitted from the early M-dwarf host (Teff,∗=3916 +71-63 K) dipped every 2.6 days, implying that a planet was orbiting it and periodically blocking its starlight from view.

Using the data they collected, they tracked NGTS-1b’s orbit around its star, and calculated its size, position and mass by measuring the radial velocity of its star (how much the star ‘wobbled’ during orbit due to the gravitational pull of the planet, which changes depending on a planet’s size).

Thus, NGTS-1b – a hot Jupiter with 20% less mass than our native Jupiter and a confirmed orbit of 2.6 days (meaning a year on the planet is only two-and-a-half days long for us on Earth) – was discovered.

“Having worked for almost a decade to develop the NGTS telescope array, it is thrilling to see it picking out new and unexpected types of planets”

Dr. Daniel Bayliss, as the lead author of the research, commented that “the discovery of NGTS-1b was a complete surprise to us”, and that the team’s next objective would be to “find out how common these types of planets are in the Galaxy”, by the continued use of the NGTS facility.

Professor Peter Wheatley, leader of the NGTS programme, similarly said that “having worked for almost a decade to develop the NGTS telescope array, it is thrilling to see it picking out new and unexpected types of planets”, and that he was “looking forward to seeing what other kinds of exciting new planets we can turn up.”

The full research report, titled ‘NGTS-1b: a hot Jupiter transiting an M-dwarf’, has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and can be found via the University of Warwick’s website.

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