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Ancient Planet

Scientists said they discovered a planet that is some 9 billion years older than any known previously. Jeffrey Brown discusses the finding with Alan Boss of the Carnegie Foundation.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Now a new discovery of a very old planet. Jeffrey Brown has that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Old" in this case means 13 billion years, and that's at least eight billion years older than any previously detected planet. Scientists say the discovery challenges what we know about how planets are formed, how early after the big bang they appeared, and how many planets might exist in the universe. The work was done by a team of astronomers and published in today's issue of the journal Science. Here to talk about it is Alan Boss, an astrophysicist with the Carnegie Institution. Welcome to you.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    It's a pleasure being here, Jeffrey.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of the members of the observation team said we think we found an example of the first generation of planets formed in the universe. What exactly did they find?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    What has been found is evidence for a roughly two and a half Jupiter mass object in orbit around a rather peculiar binary star system in a globular cluster system; this binary star system consists of a pulsar, which is a rapidly rotating neutron star, and a white dwarf star, and the system is believed to be about 13 billion years old, which makes it the oldest known planetary system found so far.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So very large, larger, twice the size of Jupiter, much larger than Earth.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Two and a half times the mass of Jupiter and Jupiter is about 318 times the mass of Earth so it's something a thousand times the mass of Earth; it's a very large planet, and it's orbiting the system in an orbit like Uranus's orbit, about 23 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And it's about 5600 light years from Earth in a star cluster called M-4. What is M-4?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    M-4 is a globular cluster; it's also known as Messier 4. It's the fourth object in a list that was chosen to help comet hunters not confuse other objects with comets. So it's an object that could have been confused with a comet a globular. It's a globular cluster that's about 13 billion years old.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Globular means –

  • ALAN BOSS:

    It has a rather round shape; if you look at it, it's a perfect sort of sphere of about 100,000 stars, and it's presumed to have formed very early on in the formation of our galaxy and of our universe.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now we have some tape of animation made by NASA, which sort of sets the scene. Why don't we roll tape and you can narrate it for us.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Yes. As you look at this, you actually see the location of the Scorpios Constellation in the southern hemisphere and Antares is the star to the left and to the right you'll see the M-4 globular cluster there. The binary star system is on the outskirts of this globular cluster. As we come in, the HST, the Hubble Space Telescope, was able to take an exquisitely precise image of this region and actually take a picture of the white dwarf star. At that point we're stopping from the HST imagery and going into artist's conception of what it might look like if we could actually travel to the system and look at it up close. Here comes the white dwarf star, which maybe has a mass of one-third the mass of the Sun. Here comes the pulsar, neutron star, and then finally here comes the planet itself, which in this rendition looks blue but, goodness knows, we don't really know exactly what it looks like.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now 13 billion years is just one billion younger than the theorized big bang. Why is it important to find a planet so old?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Well, we have evidence for well over 100 extra solar planets, planets outside of our solar system, but essentially all of the planets are no more older than our own solar system, perhaps a few billion to perhaps five billion years old. So, as far as we know, planetary systems might have just formed say within the last five billion years in our galaxy. With this new discovery, we are immediately thrust into a different point of view, namely, that planets could have formed as early as a billion years after the big bang. This is a phase where normally we are talking in cosmological terms about dark energy and missing matter. And, instead, here we are one billion years after the big bang talking about rather prosaic, sort of Newtonian concepts, planets in orbits around stars, sort of common ground. And it implies that we might very well have had planetary systems forming much earlier than they would have otherwise and in regions where would not have thought them to have been able to have formed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, that suggests that there was a lot more time, we are sort of expanding the planetary lifespan — that suggests a lot more time for things to happen.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Exactly. There is no reason why a planetary system perhaps formed early on in the universe could not have evolved life – perhaps life similar to life of our own, that life would have gone through its own cycle of evolution and perhaps died out long ago — and so while other phases of life picked up elsewhere in the galaxy. So in some sense, here we are perhaps eight billion years later, rather late comers to the galactic party, you might say.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now this also, I understand, changes or presents a challenge to the way we think of how planets are formed.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What's different about this planet?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    There are a number of peculiar things about the planet. First of all, it's in orbit around a binary star system. None of the planets that have been found so far have been found in orbit around the binary star system, but more to the point, this particular system, since it's in the globular cluster, is formed out of presumably primarily hydrogen and helium gas, the very simplest elements possible. Our own sun is formed out of gas but it also has perhaps 2 percent by weight of other elements, such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, all the elements that you need to mix solid planets. In this globular cluster system we believe that these other elements are 30 times less abundant than they are in our Sun, 30 times less. That means you have 30 times less rock and ice available to make a planet. And so this I think presents a very serious problem for our conventional way of understanding how gastrin planets like Jupiter are formed. It is believed by most people that our Jupiter formed by first having rocks and ice balls smashed together and build themselves together through self-gravity and building something perhaps the size of five to ten Earth masses, and once it got to that size, gas from the disk, which was forming the planetary system, fell on to the object and formed the final planet. Well, in this case of the M-4 planet, it is unclear if it would be possible to even build an object as massive as five to ten Earth masses because you only have 30 times less rock and ice available. So it really throws sort of a monkey wrench into the typical way of trying to explain how a gastrin planet forms.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And if planets can be created this way, does it suggest that planets might be more common than we once thought? In other words, there might be many more planets out there hidden away in corners of the universe?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Well, we certainly know that this globular cluster has at least one planet and the question is also how can we explain how it formed? As I pointed out, the typical mechanism for making planets probably doesn't work. But there is another way where we can conceive of making gastrin planets that doesn't require gas or any rocks in particular. Mainly, there could be a self-gravitating clump of gas in the disk of gas and dust which rotates as round the star, and this clump could have become self-gravitating and formed a planet directly without having the metals around. If that process worked, it probably worked well around other stars as well. And for all we know, many of the stars in the cluster harbor gastrin planets. And, given that just a few years ago people thought that globular clusters did not have any planets whatsoever, we suddenly have opened up a lot more territory, some new regimes where we expect planets to exist. It certainly widens tremendously the possibilities for having other planets in our galaxy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Alan Boss, thank you for joining us.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Thank you, Jeffrey.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Now a new discovery of a very old planet. Jeffrey Brown has that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Old" in this case means 13 billion years, and that's at least eight billion years older than any previously detected planet. Scientists say the discovery challenges what we know about how planets are formed, how early after the big bang they appeared, and how many planets might exist in the universe. The work was done by a team of astronomers and published in today's issue of the journal Science. Here to talk about it is Alan Boss, an astrophysicist with the Carnegie Institution. Welcome to you.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    It's a pleasure being here, Jeffrey.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of the members of the observation team said we think we found an example of the first generation of planets formed in the universe. What exactly did they find?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    What has been found is evidence for a roughly two and a half Jupiter mass object in orbit around a rather peculiar binary star system in a globular cluster system; this binary star system consists of a pulsar, which is a rapidly rotating neutron star, and a white dwarf star, and the system is believed to be about 13 billion years old, which makes it the oldest known planetary system found so far.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So very large, larger, twice the size of Jupiter, much larger than Earth.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Two and a half times the mass of Jupiter and Jupiter is about 318 times the mass of Earth so it's something a thousand times the mass of Earth; it's a very large planet, and it's orbiting the system in an orbit like Uranus's orbit, about 23 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And it's about 5600 light years from Earth in a star cluster called M-4. What is M-4?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    M-4 is a globular cluster; it's also known as Messier 4. It's the fourth object in a list that was chosen to help comet hunters not confuse other objects with comets. So it's an object that could have been confused with a comet a globular. It's a globular cluster that's about 13 billion years old.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Globular means –

  • ALAN BOSS:

    It has a rather round shape; if you look at it, it's a perfect sort of sphere of about 100,000 stars, and it's presumed to have formed very early on in the formation of our galaxy and of our universe.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now we have some tape of animation made by NASA, which sort of sets the scene. Why don't we roll tape and you can narrate it for us.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Yes. As you look at this, you actually see the location of the Scorpios Constellation in the southern hemisphere and Antares is the star to the left and to the right you'll see the M-4 globular cluster there. The binary star system is on the outskirts of this globular cluster. As we come in, the HST, the Hubble Space Telescope, was able to take an exquisitely precise image of this region and actually take a picture of the white dwarf star. At that point we're stopping from the HST imagery and going into artist's conception of what it might look like if we could actually travel to the system and look at it up close. Here comes the white dwarf star, which maybe has a mass of one-third the mass of the Sun. Here comes the pulsar, neutron star, and then finally here comes the planet itself, which in this rendition looks blue but, goodness knows, we don't really know exactly what it looks like.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now 13 billion years is just one billion younger than the theorized big bang. Why is it important to find a planet so old?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Well, we have evidence for well over 100 extra solar planets, planets outside of our solar system, but essentially all of the planets are no more older than our own solar system, perhaps a few billion to perhaps five billion years old. So, as far as we know, planetary systems might have just formed say within the last five billion years in our galaxy. With this new discovery, we are immediately thrust into a different point of view, namely, that planets could have formed as early as a billion years after the big bang. This is a phase where normally we are talking in cosmological terms about dark energy and missing matter. And, instead, here we are one billion years after the big bang talking about rather prosaic, sort of Newtonian concepts, planets in orbits around stars, sort of common ground. And it implies that we might very well have had planetary systems forming much earlier than they would have otherwise and in regions where would not have thought them to have been able to have formed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, that suggests that there was a lot more time, we are sort of expanding the planetary lifespan — that suggests a lot more time for things to happen.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Exactly. There is no reason why a planetary system perhaps formed early on in the universe could not have evolved life – perhaps life similar to life of our own, that life would have gone through its own cycle of evolution and perhaps died out long ago — and so while other phases of life picked up elsewhere in the galaxy. So in some sense, here we are perhaps eight billion years later, rather late comers to the galactic party, you might say.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now this also, I understand, changes or presents a challenge to the way we think of how planets are formed.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What's different about this planet?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    There are a number of peculiar things about the planet. First of all, it's in orbit around a binary star system. None of the planets that have been found so far have been found in orbit around the binary star system, but more to the point, this particular system, since it's in the globular cluster, is formed out of presumably primarily hydrogen and helium gas, the very simplest elements possible. Our own sun is formed out of gas but it also has perhaps 2 percent by weight of other elements, such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, all the elements that you need to mix solid planets. In this globular cluster system we believe that these other elements are 30 times less abundant than they are in our Sun, 30 times less. That means you have 30 times less rock and ice available to make a planet. And so this I think presents a very serious problem for our conventional way of understanding how gastrin planets like Jupiter are formed. It is believed by most people that our Jupiter formed by first having rocks and ice balls smashed together and build themselves together through self-gravity and building something perhaps the size of five to ten Earth masses, and once it got to that size, gas from the disk, which was forming the planetary system, fell on to the object and formed the final planet. Well, in this case of the M-4 planet, it is unclear if it would be possible to even build an object as massive as five to ten Earth masses because you only have 30 times less rock and ice available. So it really throws sort of a monkey wrench into the typical way of trying to explain how a gastrin planet forms.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And if planets can be created this way, does it suggest that planets might be more common than we once thought? In other words, there might be many more planets out there hidden away in corners of the universe?

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Well, we certainly know that this globular cluster has at least one planet and the question is also how can we explain how it formed? As I pointed out, the typical mechanism for making planets probably doesn't work. But there is another way where we can conceive of making gastrin planets that doesn't require gas or any rocks in particular. Mainly, there could be a self-gravitating clump of gas in the disk of gas and dust which rotates as round the star, and this clump could have become self-gravitating and formed a planet directly without having the metals around. If that process worked, it probably worked well around other stars as well. And for all we know, many of the stars in the cluster harbor gastrin planets. And, given that just a few years ago people thought that globular clusters did not have any planets whatsoever, we suddenly have opened up a lot more territory, some new regimes where we expect planets to exist. It certainly widens tremendously the possibilities for having other planets in our galaxy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Alan Boss, thank you for joining us.

  • ALAN BOSS:

    Thank you, Jeffrey.

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