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Lonely planet drifts without a star

WASHINGTON — It’s just a newborn in planetary terms, and it’s drifting all alone in space without a star to orbit.

The solitary life of this newly discovered planet, with the catchy name PSO J318.5-22, has astronomers excited.

Only 80 light-years from Earth, the 12 million-year-old planet has properties similar to those of gas-giant planets orbiting young stars.

PlanetBut because it is floating alone through space, rather than around a host star, astronomers can study it much more easily.

“We have never before seen an object free-floating in space that looks like this,” said Dr. Michael Liu of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who led the international team that discovered the planet.

“It has all the characteristics of young planets found around other stars, but it is drifting out there all alone. I had often wondered if such solitary objects exist, and now we know they do.”

While about a thousand planets have been discovered outside our solar system in the past decade by indirect means — such as observing the wobbling or dimming of their host stars as they orbit — only a handful of new planets have been directly imaged, all of them around young stars, according to a release from the Institute for Astronomy.

Young stars are those less than 200 million years old.

PSO J318.5-22’s solitary existence and its similarity to those directly observed planets makes it a rare find.

For more on this CNN story, click here.

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