Paris, Oct 7 : The COROT space telescope has discovered a massive planet-sized object orbiting its parent star closely, unlike anything ever spotted before, leaving scientists puzzled as to whether this oddity is actually a planet or a failed star.
The object, named COROT-exo-3b, is about the size of Jupiter, but packs more than 20 times the mass. It takes only 4 days and 6 hours to orbit its parent star, which is slightly larger than the Sun.
COROT-exo-3b was found as the satellite observed the drop in the brightness of the star each time the object (COROT-exo-3b) passed in front.
"We were taken by surprise when we found this massive object orbiting so close to its parent star", said Dr Magali Deleuil from the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM), leader of the team that made the discovery.
"COROT-exo-3b is really unique. We're still debating its nature," she added.
The search for planets with orbital periods less than 10 days orbiting close to the parent star has lasted almost 15 years. During this time, scientists have encountered planets with masses 12 times that ofupiter, and stars with 70 times as massive as Jupiter, but none in between.
This is why the 20-Jupiter-mass COROT-exo-3b was such a surprise.
This odd find does not fall into either conventional category of planets or brown dwarves. A brown dwarf is a 'failed star', a sub-stellar object that is not undergoing nuclear fusion at its core, but displays some stellar characteristics.
"COROT-exo-3b might turn out to be a rare object found by sheer luck", said Dr Francois Bouchy, from Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris (IAP), member of the team that made the discovery.
"But it might just be a member of a new-found family of very massive planets that encircle stars more massive than our Sun. We're now beginning to think that the more massive the star, the more massive the planet," he said.
According to team member Dr Hans Deeg, of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC), this new object is such an important find for planet hunters, because, "It has puzzled us. We're not sure where to draw the boundary between planets and brown dwarves."
As a planet, COROT-exo-3b would be the most massive and the densest found to date - more than twice as dense as lead.
Studying it will help them better understand how to categorise such objects. The team also wants to understand how such a massive object formed so close to its parent.