You may have heard that astronomers spotted the largest solar system seen so far in the universe. It's actually more accurate to call it the widest solar system ever seen, thanks to a wispy waif of a ghostly gas giant planet orbiting its star at the remarkable distance of 1 trillion kilometers (approximately 621 billion miles).
Until recently, the object known as 2MASS J2126 was thought to be a free-floating lonely planet drifting through interstellar space untethered by the gravitational pull of a nearby star. But a team of American, Australian and British researchers report in the latest Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society that the planet is actually orbiting an equally lonely star at a distance about 7,000 times wider than the distance between Earth and the sun.
For further comparison, that's about seven times farther out from its star than even the hypothetical Planet 9 some think could be circling our own sun far beyond Neptune.
"This is the widest planet system found so far and both the members of it have been known for eight years," lead author Niall Deacon of the University of Hertfordshire in a release. "But nobody had made the link between the objects before. The planet is not quite as lonely as we first thought, but it's certainly in a very long distance relationship."
Gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, tend to be larger and made up of layers of gases surrounding a typically small rocky or metallic core. While 2MASS J2126 is a large gas giant, it's lightweight for its size and not very dense, lending it a sort of ghostly quality as it wanders around the star TYC 9486-927-1, which itself is rather lonely as it is not known to be part of any other grouping of stars.
The whole arrangement reminds me of an early job I had working in a remote radio station in Alaska. I would sit in the station by myself and broadcast news and really old Hank Williams tunes out into the wilderness. I happened to know that at the very edge of our AM signal's range there were a few trappers living in isolated cabins reachable only by boat. Like the distant pull of that star's gravity on 2MASS J2126, their only tether to civilization was that radio signal.
Those trappers would come visit me in person at the station perhaps once or twice a year to meet the voice that helped keep them sane. I know it's not quite the same thing, but if we can think of an orbit as coming home or at least returning regularly to a familiar location, then the roughly 50 orbits (each taking 900,000 years to complete) that 2MASS J2126 will make in its lifetime aren't unlike the number of visits those trappers might make to my old station in their lifetime.
More than anything, the discovery of this longest-distance relationship ever just puts space into perspective yet again. No matter how isolated an object seems to be, the odds seem to be in favor of eventually discovering that it's somehow connected to something else, no matter how distant.
It's kind of a nice thought, but not nice enough that I'm signing up to move to a remote cabin in the Arctic wilderness or undertake a mission to 2MASS J2126 anytime soon.
If you could stand on the surface of that planet, co-author Simon Murphy of the Australian National University says, the connection to your solar system's star would be tough to detect. It would probably appear just as bright as any other star in the sky, likely making any inhabitants feel just as alone in the universe as they appear to us from our own vantage point.