Pack your bags – we may have found the first planet outside of our galaxy

Alas, we will have to wait 70 years to confirm the sighting

Astronomers have for the first time discovered what looks like a planet outside the Milky Way, judging by a study published this week in Nature.

Over 4,000 exoplanets have been spotted orbiting stars in our galaxy since the early 1990s when scientists confirmed the Solar System isn’t a unique formation.

Our Sun is just one star among the 100 billion or so stars in the Milky Way. Our galaxy, in turn, is just one among the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. It’s only natural to assume therefore that there must be exoplanets circling stars in other galaxies, too, though astronomers have never managed to find one so far away until now.

Researchers led by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have stumbled across tantalizing evidence of what could be the first-ever extragalactic planet.

They found, according to the aforementioned paper, a strange pattern in the radiation emitted from an X-ray binary system in the Messier 51 galaxy located 28 million light-years away. These types of systems are made up of a neutron star or black hole gobbling gas from a neighboring star. The team detected a temporary decrease in the strength of X-ray emission, a pattern similar to what astronomers see when an exoplanet orbits stars closer to Earth.

A periodic dip in the brightness of a star, also known as a transit signal, suggests its light is being blocked by an exoplanet passing in front of it during orbit. The level of dimming allows astronomers to estimate the object’s size and mass, and the frequency of these dips shows how close it lies to its host star. Now a similar effect has been observed with the X-Ray binary system.

“This was the unique event that displayed a clear transit signal,” Rosanne Di Stefano, lead author of the paper and a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, told The Register.

“The modeling of the signal showed that the size of the object is in the planetary range most likely comparable to the size of Saturn.”

The mysterious object has been dubbed M51-ULS-1.

The X-ray emissions were measured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, a space telescope launched in 1999. Although the researchers have ruled out other possibilities behind the dip in brightness, such as a passing cloud of gas and dust, for example, it’s difficult to confirm whether the decrease is from a planet or not. Scientists don’t expect to see another transit event for another 70 years or so due to M51-ULS-1 being quite far away from its star; it orbits at about twice the distance of Saturn from the Sun.

“It is a very strong candidate. But it is in a wide orbit, so we will not see it repeat in the near future, something we generally think of as helping with confirmation. The best idea is to keep searching and to find others,” Di Stefano said.

The team hunted for X-ray transits in hundreds of systems in three galaxies: Messier 51, aka the Whirpool galaxy; Messier 101, aka the Pinwheel galaxy; and Messier 104, aka the Sombrero galaxy to find one promising signal.

They’ll scour through archives of previous measurements taken by the Chandra observatory and the XMM-Newton space telescope next to find similar signals for comparison. It may prove useful to search for X-ray transits closer to home, around stars within the Milky Way.

“We know we are making an exciting and bold claim so we expect that other astronomers will look at it very carefully,” said paper co-author Julia Berndtsson, a physics student at Princeton University. “We think we have a strong argument, and this process is how science works.” ®

Similar topics

Broader topics

Other stories you might like

  • Google keeps legacy G Suite alive and free for personal use

    Google has quietly dropped its demand that users of its free G Suite legacy edition cough up to continue enjoying custom email domains and cloudy productivity tools.

    This story starts in 2006 with the launch of “Google Apps for Your Domain”, a bundle of services that included email, a calendar, Google Talk, and a website building tool. Beta users were offered the service at no cost, complete with the ability to use a custom domain if users let Google handle their MX record.

    The service evolved over the years and added more services, and in 2020 Google rebranded its online productivity offering as “Workspace”. Beta users got most of the updated offerings at no cost.

    Continue reading
  • GNU Compiler Collection adds support for China's LoongArch CPU family
    MIPS...ish is on the march in the Middle Kingdom

    Version 12.1 of the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) was released this month, and among its many changes is support for China's LoongArch processor architecture.

    The announcement of the release is here; the LoongArch port was accepted as recently as March.

    China's Academy of Sciences developed a family of MIPS-compatible microprocessors in the early 2000s. In 2010 the tech was spun out into a company callled Loongson Technology which today markets silicon under the brand "Godson". The company bills itself as working to develop technology that secures China and underpins its ability to innovate, a reflection of Beijing's believe that home-grown CPU architectures are critical to the nation's future.

    Continue reading
  • China’s COVID lockdowns bite e-commerce players
    CEO of e-tail market leader JD perhaps boldly points out wider economic impact of zero-virus stance

    The CEO of China’s top e-commerce company, JD, has pointed out the economic impact of China’s current COVID-19 lockdowns - and the news is not good.

    Speaking on the company’s Q1 2022 earnings call, JD Retail CEO Lei Xu said that the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic had brought positive effects for many Chinese e-tailers as buyer behaviour shifted to online purchases.

    But Lei said the current lengthy and strict lockdowns in Shanghai and Beijing, plus shorter restrictions in other large cities, have started to bite all online businesses as well as their real-world counterparts.

    Continue reading
  • Foxconn forms JV to build chip fab in Malaysia
    Can't say when, where, nor price tag. Has promised 40k wafers a month at between 28nm and 40nm

    Taiwanese contract manufacturer to the stars Foxconn is to build a chip fabrication plant in Malaysia.

    The planned factory will emit 12-inch wafers, with process nodes ranging from 28 to 40nm, and will have a capacity of 40,000 wafers a month. By way of comparison, semiconductor-centric analyst house IC Insights rates global wafer capacity at 21 million a month, and Taiwanese TSMC’s four “gigafabs” can each crank out 250,000 wafers a month.

    In terms of production volume and technology, this Malaysian facility will not therefore catapult Foxconn into the ranks of leading chipmakers.

    Continue reading
  • NASA's InSight doomed as Mars dust coats solar panels
    The little lander that couldn't (any longer)

    The Martian InSight lander will no longer be able to function within months as dust continues to pile up on its solar panels, starving it of energy, NASA reported on Tuesday.

    Launched from Earth in 2018, the six-metre-wide machine's mission was sent to study the Red Planet below its surface. InSight is armed with a range of instruments, including a robotic arm, seismometer, and a soil temperature sensor. Astronomers figured the data would help them understand how the rocky cores of planets in the Solar System formed and evolved over time.

    "InSight has transformed our understanding of the interiors of rocky planets and set the stage for future missions," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. "We can apply what we've learned about Mars' inner structure to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems."

    Continue reading
  • The ‘substantial contributions’ Intel has promised to boost RISC-V adoption
    With the benefit of maybe revitalizing the x86 giant’s foundry business

    Analysis Here's something that would have seemed outlandish only a few years ago: to help fuel Intel's future growth, the x86 giant has vowed to do what it can to make the open-source RISC-V ISA worthy of widespread adoption.

    In a presentation, an Intel representative shared some details of how the chipmaker plans to contribute to RISC-V as part of its bet that the instruction set architecture will fuel growth for its revitalized contract chip manufacturing business.

    While Intel invested in RISC-V chip designer SiFive in 2018, the semiconductor titan's intentions with RISC-V evolved last year when it revealed that the contract manufacturing business key to its comeback, Intel Foundry Services, would be willing to make chips compatible with x86, Arm, and RISC-V ISAs. The chipmaker then announced in February it joined RISC-V International, the ISA's governing body, and launched a $1 billion innovation fund that will support chip designers, including those making RISC-V components.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022