“Unusually Massive” – Astronomers Discover a Planet That Shouldn’t Exist

Large Exoplanet Art

Penn State researchers have discovered an extraordinarily massive planet orbiting an ultracool dwarf star, challenging existing theories of planet and star formation. Named LHS 3154b, the planet’s mass is over 13 times that of Earth, while its host star, LHS 3154, has a mass significantly lower than the sun. Credit: SciTechDaily.com

Researchers at Penn State have discovered an unusually massive planet, LHS 3154b, orbiting an ultracool dwarf star. This finding, contradicting current theories, prompts a reassessment of star and planet formation processes.

The discovery of a planet that is far too massive for its sun is calling into question what was previously understood about the formation of planets and their solar systems, according to Penn State researchers.

In a paper published on November 30 in the journal Science, researchers report the discovery of a planet more than 13 times as massive as Earth orbiting the “ultracool” star LHS 3154, which itself is nine times less massive than the sun. The mass ratio of the newly found planet with its host star is more than 100 times higher than that of Earth and the sun.


This video is an artistic representation of a newly discovered system, LHS 3154, which contains a planet far more massive for its sun than current models would predict. Credit: Abigail Hope Minnich

Challenging Current Theories

The finding reveals the most massive known planet in a close orbit around an ultracool dwarf star, the least massive and coldest stars in the universe. The discovery goes against what current theories would predict for planet formation around small stars and marks the first time a planet with such high mass has been spotted orbiting such a low-mass star.

“This discovery really drives home the point of just how little we know about the universe,” said Suvrath Mahadevan, the Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State and co-author on the paper. “We wouldn’t expect a planet this heavy around such a low-mass star to exist.”

Mass Comparison of LHS 3154 System

An artistic rendering of the mass comparison of LHS 3154 system and our own Earth and sun. Credit: Penn State University

Formation of Stars and Planets

He explained that stars are formed from large clouds of gas and dust. After the star is formed, the gas and dust remain as disks of material orbiting the newborn star, which can eventually develop into planets.

“The planet-forming disk around the low-mass star LHS 3154 is not expected to have enough solid mass to make this planet,” Mahadevan said. “But it’s out there, so now we need to reexamine our understanding of how planets and stars form.”


Penn State researchers Suvrath Mahadevan and Megan Delamer explain the discovery of a massive planet orbiting a small star. Credit: Penn State University

Discovery Using HPF

The researchers spotted the oversized planet, named LHS 3154b, using an astronomical spectrograph built at Penn State by a team of scientists led by Mahadevan. The instrument, called the Habitable Zone Planet Finder or HPF, was designed to detect planets orbiting the coolest stars outside our solar system with the potential for having liquid water — a key ingredient for life — on their surfaces.

Detecting Planets Around Ultracool Stars

While such planets are very difficult to detect around stars like our sun, the low temperature of ultracool stars means that planets capable of having liquid water on their surface are much closer to their star relative to Earth and the sun. This shorter distance between these planets and their stars, combined with the low mass of the ultracool stars, results in a detectable signal announcing the presence of the planet, Mahadevan explained.

“Think about it like the star is a campfire. The more the fire cools down, the closer you’ll need to get to that fire to stay warm,” Mahadevan said. “The same is true for planets. If the star is colder, then a planet will need to be closer to that star if it is going to be warm enough to contain liquid water. If a planet has a close enough orbit to its ultracool star, we can detect it by seeing a very subtle change in the color of the star’s spectra or light as it is tugged on by an orbiting planet.”

Possible View From LHS 3154b

Artistic rendering of the possible view from LHS 3154b towards its low mass host star. Given its large mass, LHS 3154b probably has a Neptune-like composition. Credit: Penn State

Significance of HPF

Located at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas, the HPF provides some of the highest precision measurements to date of such infrared signals from nearby stars.

“Making the discovery with HPF was extra special, as it is a new instrument that we designed, developed and built from the ground-up for the purpose of looking at the uncharted planet population around the lowest mass stars,” said Guðmundur Stefánsson, NASA Sagan Fellow in Astrophysics at Princeton University and lead author on the paper, who helped develop HPF and worked on the study as a graduate student at Penn State. “Now we are reaping the rewards, learning new and unexpected aspects of this exciting population of planets orbiting some of the most nearby stars.”

The instrument has already yielded critical information in the discovery and confirmation of new planets, Stefánsson explained, but the discovery of the planet LHS 3154b exceeded all expectations.

Rethinking Planet Formation Theories

“Based on current survey work with the HPF and other instruments, an object like the one we discovered is likely extremely rare, so detecting it has been really exciting,” said Megan Delamer, astronomy graduate student at Penn State and co-author on the paper. “Our current theories of planet formation have trouble accounting for what we’re seeing.”

In the case of the massive planet discovered orbiting the star LHS 3154, the heavy planetary core inferred by the team’s measurements would require a larger amount of solid material in the planet-forming disk than current models would predict, Delamer explained. The finding also raises questions about prior understandings of the formation of stars, as the dust-mass and dust-to-gas ratio of the disk surrounding stars like LHS 3154 — when they were young and newly formed — would need to be 10 times higher than what was observed in order to form a planet as massive as the one the team discovered.

“What we have discovered provides an extreme test case for all existing planet formation theories,” Mahadevan said. “This is exactly what we built HPF to do, to discover how the most common stars in our galaxy form planets — and to find those planets.”

Reference: “A Neptune-mass exoplanet in close orbit around a very low-mass star challenges formation models” by Guðmundur Stefánsson, Suvrath Mahadevan, Yamila Miguel, Paul Robertson, Megan Delamer, Shubham Kanodia, Caleb I. Cañas, Joshua N. Winn, Joe P. Ninan, Ryan C. Terrien, Rae Holcomb, Eric B. Ford, Brianna Zawadzki, Brendan P. Bowler, Chad F. Bender, William D. Cochran, Scott Diddams, Michael Endl, Connor Fredrick, Samuel Halverson, Fred Hearty, Gary J. Hill, Andrea S. J. Lin, Andrew J. Metcalf, Andrew Monson, Lawrence Ramsey, Arpita Roy, Christian Schwab, Jason T. Wright and Gregory Zeimann, 30 November 2023, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.abo0233

Other Penn State authors on the paper are Eric Ford, Brianna Zawadzki, Fred Hearty, Andrea Lin, Lawrence Ramsey, and Jason Wright. Other authors on the paper are Joshua Winn of Princeton University, Yamila Miguel of the University of Leiden, Paul Robertson of the University of California, Irvine, and Rae Holcomb of the University of California, Shubham Kanodia of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Caleb Cañas of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Joe Ninan of India’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Ryan Terrien of Carleton College, Brendan Bowler, William Cochran, Michael Endl and Gary Hill of The University of Texas at Austin, Chad Bender of The University of Arizona, Scott Diddams, Connor Fredrick and Andrew Metcalf of the University of Colorado, Samuel Halverson of California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Andrew Monson of the University of Arizona, Arpita Roy of Johns Hopkins University, Christian Schwab of Australia‘s Macquarie University, and Gregory Zeimann of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at UT Austin.

The work was funded by the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State, the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

4 Comments on "“Unusually Massive” – Astronomers Discover a Planet That Shouldn’t Exist"

  1. dr mehrdad kesiri | December 5, 2023 at 7:28 am | Reply

    Hello to our astronomy students and professors in Iran, because the dictatorial and criminal regime of Harum Laqmeh of the Mullahs of the Islamic Republic, by order of the Harumzade leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei, all scientific sites have been blocked, so please send my message tothepolitical sites and I am asking you for information Send me a text message from the Milky Way to my mobile number because my email was blocked by the criminal regime of the Mullahs.Thank you very much, Dr. Astronomy and World Religions.God, whois the supreme force and artificial intelligence, was created by humans hundreds of millions of years ago.I have seen many times in the sky the images that God has drawn for me and I am aware of the secrets of the earth and the past of theearth and the events that have happened to the solar system by the gods of the earth and Ihave asked God many times what the speed of the two big arms of the galaxy is, but the great spirits told me that we We know about the earth,but we don’t know about the galaxy, and they told me to ask American astronomers, but we in Iran don’t have access to NASA’s website.Anyone who knows the speed of the big arms of the galaxy, send me a short message.Thank you very much.In return, I will have any information about the unseen world.If you want, I will definitely give you the correct answer.The sun was in the form of a cloud like a nebula thousands of billions of years ago.Most of the nuclei of atoms of various elements are 10 to 100 thousand times smaller than the atoms themselves.The core of the sun is very old and dense.And it’s unbelievable.There is no perfect atom in the core of the sun, noelectron orbiting a proton!From the distance between the stars, we can calculate the magnitude and age of the stars.The magnitude and age of the sun when the clouds and nebulae This is directly related to the distance between the stars.There was no bigbang.If all the galaxies and hundreds of billions of galaxies were put into a black hole, an explosion might occur.But stars will never be born after the explosion.Because no atom remains untouched in a very large black hole.More than trillions ofyears have passed since the age of the sun.God told me through his messenger that exactly trillions of years have passed since then.Many from Tehran.I am waiting for your messages.My email is blocked.You can send a short message.Godis a building that humans made hundreds of millions of years ago, and they had hundreds of thousands of years or millions of years of history on earth.I have seen pictures that God made with clouds in the sky.M.I myself had asked the gods of the earth to create them.Images with clouds.May your God be our God.He promised heaven for good deeds and hell for bad deeds before, but now God has said that this is necessary.There is nowork because the law deals with sinners.Look for work and effort.When you are over 30 years old, look for religion.Whenever you don’t have financial problems, help others yourself.I am a special servant of God and for this reasonI am not very happy because God has chosen me to eliminate those who want to stop Islam and interfere in the work of the gods of Iran and the earth.This is a very difficult task and great powers are needed.The world must help the Iraniannation.May the earth help, and the mullahs who killed the people and took freedom from Iranian men and women, punish those clerics who went in the dress of religion and all authority, the people were captured by the clerics, America must overthrow the criminalregime ofthe Islamic Republic.to establish freedom and democracy in Iran mobil dr kesiri 00989332197646 thank you time in iran 6:57 pm

  2. What troubles me about this article is what appears to be major assumptions about this star/planet pairing. Since this research gives evidence that our current models are off by a minimum of a factor of ten, I think some alternative hypothesis need to be postulated and tested before we go crazy on this. The main issue being that they are working on the assumption that this massive planet was, indeed, formed in the traditional manner by this supercool dwarf star. What if two celestial bodies had over lapping orbitsand eventually collided, forming this planet? Or what if a rogue planet collided with this massive planet when it was much smaller? What if that planet WAS a rogue planet and it got trapped in that star’s SOI? What if there used to be a second star there? If these questions were already definitively answered, it sure would be nice if the researchers would say so.

  3. I really have to agree with nathans comments

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