Beyond the Milky Way: Planetary Discovery Wows Scientists

Extragalactic Planet

"It is natural to hypothesize that planets are common in external [non-Milky Way] galaxies as well", the authors write in the paper, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. But as Elaina Zachos at National Geographic reports, astronomers have used a technique known as microlensing to detect signals from a galaxy 3.8 billion light years away that seem to suggest it is chock full of planets, ranging in size from the moon to Jupiter. This time, the bright beams of a quasar helped researchers to detect the presence of large bodies in a galaxy that lies between Earth and the light source.

Professor Xinyu Dai said, ' We are very excited about this discovery. "This is the first time anyone has discovered planets outside our galaxy", said Dai. Dai and Eduardo Guerras, a postdoctoral researcher, inferred the presence of these extragalactic planets from gravitational microlensing, a phenomenon that can magnify distant objects due to how gravity of a closer, massive object bends light. He explained that they analysed the high frequency of the signature by modelling the data.

The newly discovered planets are about 3.8 billion light-years away.

Usually astronomers find planets through one of two ways: watching a planet dim the light of a star as it passes across the star - the transit method - or watching a star wobble due to planets orbiting around it - the radial velocity method.

The Milky Way, the galaxy containing our solar system, has hundreds of billions of stars, according to NASA.

A technique called microlensing, which is what the researchers used in this particular effort, uses background light which is bending around an object to study the what lies in between. A more powerful technique was required to find planets located at a more distant region from our galaxy. But they were still able to use their calculations to estimate the number of planets and masses.

The RX J1131-1231 galaxy (at center) with four quasars lensed around it. Scientists identified evidence of 2,000 planets wandering in this elliptical galaxy. "If you have only one planet, the chances of observing it twice is astronomically small". The image isn't necessarily perfectly clear, but you can see a lot further using this technique than would otherwise be possible.

"This microlensing is amplifying something that is very small and changing colours, which makes no sense", Guerras says, "or it's amplifying a small region of a bigger object and that object has different colours".

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