The space breakthrough marks the very first time astronomers have named an exoplanet candidate in a galaxy that is not our own. The discovery is all the more impressive, considering astronomers did not even know if exoplanets existed beyond our solar system until 1992. Since then, missions like NASA’s Kepler and TESS have found thousands of planets orbiting distant stars throughout the Milky Way.
But never have astronomers been able to see far enough into a neighbouring galaxy to find an alien world.
A team of researchers from the US and China have now published evidence of one such planet in the Whirlpool Galaxy, Messier 51.
The potential discovery was presented in a paper uploaded to the preprint server arXiv.
In the study, the researchers describe the exoplanet candidate dubbed M51-ULS-1b.
The study reads: “Do external galaxies host planetary systems? Many lines of reasoning suggest that the answer must be ‘yes’.
“In the foreseeable future, however, the question cannot be answered by the methods most successful in our own galaxy.
“We report a different approach which focuses on bright X-ray sources (XRS).
“M51-ULS-1b is the first planet candidate to be found because it produces a full, short-lived eclipse of a bright XRS.”
The potential planet was spotted near the constellation Ursa Major some 23 million light-years from Earth.
In other words, the object sits an approximate 135,208,380,000,000,000,000 miles from us.
The researchers estimate it is slightly smaller than Saturn and orbits a binary star system.
The binary most likely consists of a massive star and a black hole or neutron star.
Typically, exoplanet discoveries are made by spotting transits – planets passing in front of stars.
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When a planet transits a star, a space telescope like NASA’s TESS can monitor the resulting dip in brightness.
In this case, however, the astronomers observed an X-ray transit.
The binary system is emitting X-rays out into space, which suggests its black hole or neutron star is in the process of consuming a nearby star.
And something appears to be temporarily blotting out the X-rays for about three hours, which could be a planet passing between us and the binary.
However, the researchers acknowledge more work will need to be done before any conclusions are drawn.
The wrote in their study: “The discovery of M51-ULS-1b has established that external galaxies host candidate planets.
“It also demonstrates that the study of X-ray transits can reveal the presence of otherwise invisible systems, which will also include brown dwarfs and low-mass stars.
“Discovering and studying extragalactic planets and other small objects in external galaxies can establish connections and contrasts with the Sun’s environment in the Milky Way, provide insight into the mutual evolution of stellar and binary orbits, and expand the realm within which we can search for extraterrestrial life.
“Extending the search will expand the scope of what we can say about our place in the universe.”
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