The Whirlpool Galaxy, some 28 million light-years from Earth, looks to our telescopes like a cosmic hurricane littered with sparkling gemstones. Huge, lean arms spiral out from the center of Whirlpool, also known as M51. Cradled within them are young stars flaring to life and old stars expanding, expiring and exploding.
In 2012, NASA's Chandra Observatory, which sees the sky in X-rays, spotted a curious flicker coming from the galaxy. An X-ray source in one of Whirlpool's arms switched off for about two hours before suddenly flaring back to life. This isn't particularly unusual for X-ray sources in the cosmos. Some flare, others periodically dim.
This particular source emanated from an "X-ray binary," known as M51-ULS-1, which is actually two objects: Cosmic dance partners that have been two-stepping around each other for potentially billions of years. One of these objects is either a black hole or a neutron star, and the other may be a large, very bright type of star known as a "blue supergiant."
As astronomers looked a little more closely at the X-ray signal from the pair, they began to suspect the cause for the dimming may have been something we've never seen before: A world outside of the Milky Way, had briefly prevented X-rays from reaching our telescopes. The team dubbed it an "extroplanet."
Astronomers have been probing the skies for decades, searching for planets outside of our solar system. The first confirmed detection of an exoplanet came in 1992 when two or more bodies were detected around the rapidly spinning neutron star PSR1257+12.
Prior to these first detections, humans had mostly imagined planets very similar to those we become familiar with in preschool. Rocky planets like the Earth and Mars, gas giants like Jupiter and smaller worlds, like Pluto, far from the sun. Since 1992, our ideas have proven to be extremely unimaginative.
Exoplanets are truly alien worlds with extremely strange features. There's the planet where it rains iron, the mega Jupiter that orbits its home star in an egg-shaped orbit, a "naked" planet in the Neptune desert and a ton of super-Earths that seem to resemble home, just a little engorged. Dozens of strange, new worlds continue to be found by powerful planet-hunting telescopes each year.
It's very likely (in fact, it's practically certain) that planets exist outside of our galaxy -- we just haven't been able to detect them yet. Our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda, is approximately 2.5 million light-years away. The farthest exoplanet we've found resides at just 28,000 light-years from Earth, according to the NASA Exoplanet Catalog.
Finding planets outside the solar system is not easy because less and less light makes its way across the universe to our telescopes. Astronomers rarely "see" an exoplanet directly. This is because the bright light from a star in nearby planetary systems usually obscures any planets that might orbit around it.
To "see" them, astronomers have to block out a star's rays. Less than 2% of the exoplanets in NASA's 4,538-strong catalog have been found by this method, known as "direct imaging."
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