UBC-led team helps to identify oldest planet in the universe

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,

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 http://hubblesite.org/news/2003/19.

Biography: Harvey B. Richer

Professor Harvey Richer was born in Montreal, Quebec. He
studied at McGill University and obtained his doctorate in
physics and astronomy from the University of Rochester.
Richer has been at the University of British Columbia since
the early 1970s. For the past three years, he has been the
Gemini Scientist for Canada. Last year he was awarded a Canada
Council Killam Fellowship that allows him to work full time
on his research.

His research is largely focused on stellar astronomy and
on what resolved systems of stars can tell us about dark matter,
the age of the universe, the dynamical evolution of stellar
systems, and the formation of galaxies. To investigate these
diverse subjects, he observes a wide range of objects, including
nearby stars, open and globular star clusters, and the resolved
components of our neighbouring galaxies. To accomplish his
research goals, he uses a variety of telescopes, particularly
the Twin Gemini Telescopes, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope
and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Biography: Ingrid Stairs

Assistant Professor Ingrid Stairs came to UBC last year.
She obtained her PhD at Princeton University where she worked
on radio pulsars with recent Nobel laureate Joseph Taylor.
She subsequently held postdoctoral appointments at Jodrell
Bank Observatory, U.K., and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory
facility in Green Bank, West Virginia. She holds a University
Faculty Award in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and
her research is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering
Research Council of Canada (NSERC).