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UBC-lead team helps to identify oldest planet in universe

11.07.2003


An international research team co-led by Prof. Harvey Richer of the University of British Columbia today announced that it has confirmed the existence of the universe’s oldest known and farthest planet.



The findings end a decade of speculation and debate as to the true nature of this ancient world, which takes a century to complete each orbit. The un-named planet is 2.5 times the mass of our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter. Its existence provides evidence that the universe’s first planets were formed rapidly, within a billion years of the Big Bang.

"This is tremendously exciting and certainly suggests that planets are probably more common that we had suspected," says Prof. Harvey Richer who announced the findings at a press conference held today at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.


The Jupiter-sized planet formed around a sun-like star 13 billion years ago. The ancient planet has had a remarkable life. When it was born it probably orbited its youthful sun at approximately the same distance Jupiter is from our sun. It has survived blistering ultraviolet radiation, supernova explosions and violent shockwaves.

Located near the core of an ancient star cluster 5,600 light-years away, it now orbits a pair of burned-out stars. One of the stars is observed as a pulsar by radio telescopes, but the other had not been seen until now. The research team used data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to precisely measure the second star, and this let them nail down the properties of the planet as well.

The team’s research suggests that the planet is likely a gas giant, without a solid surface like the Earth. Because it was formed so early in the life of the universe it probably doesn’t have great quantities of elements such as carbon and oxygen. For these reasons, it’s unlikely the planet could support life.
Richer says that in the current model of planetary formation, planets evolve out of small collections of rocks (called planetesimals) which come together and become massive enough to gravitationally attract gas. The newly confirmed planet was formed so early in the history of the universe that its gas was still very metal-poor (and could not conceivably form rocks). This suggests that direct gravitational collapse of gas was its formation scenario so planets could have been forming continuously since the universe was very young.
Other members of the research team include Ingrid Stairs, a radio astronomer at UBC, Brad Hansen of UCLA, Steinn Sigurdsson of Penn State University, and Stephen Thorsett of UCSC.

Richer’s work is supported by two of Canada’s most prestigious granting agencies: The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canada Council.
The results of the team’s research are to be published in the journal Science on July 11. Electronic images and additional information are available at

Michelle Cook | University of British Columbia
Further information:
http://www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/media/releases/2003/mr-03-67.html
http://hubblesite.org/news/2003/19.

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