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JUMBOs in Orion

Modern science, with today’s technology, has accomplished a lot in exploring the universe, but now and then something happens that reminds us we don’t know everything. In October 2023 the James Webb Space Telescope, which detects infrared light of faint objects, found some objects in Orion that were surprising. It found objects that seem to be planets but they are not orbiting stars. Actually 540 of these objects were found in Orion. But the amazing thing was that 40 of them are planet-planet binary pairs. Planets orbiting each other instead of orbiting a star. There are also two cases of trinary objects that were found in Orion, with three objects orbiting each other. They were found in a star cluster called Trapezium, which is within the Orion Nebula. The Orion Nebula is the subject of many beautiful pictures. But a nebula is a hot inhospitable place. Star clusters may be made up of hundreds to thousands of stars (such as the Pleiades for instance). In star clusters the stars are relatively close together, which means they can affect each other. So what if the stars in a star cluster have planets? This puts those planets in a kind of danger zone, a high traffic region of space.

A few definitions are in order to appreciate how unusual these objects are. There are many stars in our galaxy that have extra-solar planets orbiting them. It is generally accepted by most planetary scientists that planets form from a spinning disk of gas and dust that spins around a star that recently formed. But, it is generally accepted that when exoplanets form, they can sometimes get kicked out and escape the gravity of their star. This could happen perhaps if two planets got too close to each other. Or perhaps if an exoplanet were in a long orbit that puts it a long distance from its star and then another nearby star comes close to the planet, pulling it away. Planets that escape their stars like this are called rogue planets, or unbound planets, or sometimes FFP’s, for Free-Floating Planets. In fact the word “planet” came from a Greek word that meant “wanderer.” It can be a challenge to determine what a “free-floating” object in space is. If an object is not giving off energy like a star and it is about 14 Jupiter masses or more, it is generally called a Brown Dwarf star. It was generally believed that an object smaller than that cannot form by compression of gases and material from its own gravity. Scientists generally believed for years that it was only near a star that gas and dust could become dense enough to form planets. But today some scientists are questioning this.

The objects found in Orion have one of two new acronyms. If they are wandering alone and not orbiting any other object they are called Jupiter Mass Objects, or JMOs. If they are in pairs they are called JUMBOs, which means Jupiter Mass Binary Objects. The trinary objects don’t seem to have their own acronym. I would say to be consistent you could call them Jupiter Mass Trinary Objects, or JUMTOs. The ones found in Orion range in mass from 0.6 Jupiter mass to 14 Jupiter masses. Again, 40 of them are binary pairs. There are some amazing photos showing these planet pairs in Orion. There are a number of puzzling questions raised by these objects.

For pictures, see this article from Scientific American. Title: Stunning Images Reveal Rogue Planets of the Orion Nebula

  1. Why are there so many JMOs in Orion?
  2. Why are there so many JUMBOs in Orion?
  3. How did they get there?
  4. Did they once orbit stars, or not? If they did orbit stars, what happened to those stars?
  5. Could JMOs become JUMBOs? Or, could JUMBOs become JMOs?
  6. How stable are the JUMBOs?

The James Webb telescope detected these new objects from their heat given off in infrared energy. You might expect that if they are not orbiting a star they would be cold objects, but not usually. They are hot; they would not be detectable if they were not. Two scientists from Leiden University in the Netherlands published on the internet a technical paper describing simulations they did examining four possible scenarios that might explain the JUMBOs. The paper is not peer reviewed and is not yet published in any scientific journal as far as I can tell. The copy I found was dated March 12, 2024 (search for arXiv:2312.04645). So, this is very recent. Their last names are Zwart and Hochart. When such things are detected, if you know the distance to them you can estimate their size and mass from how bright they are. Then, for the binary ones the distance between the bound objects can be estimated. Since these objects are in a star cluster near known stars, their distances can be determined well. So Zwart and Hochart estimate that the separation distance between the binaries ranges from 25 to 380 A.U. Recall that 1 Astronomical Unit is the distance from Earth to our Sun, or about 93 million miles. Zwart and Hochart argue that these binary objects are likely to be in very elliptical orbits.

What Ifs

Zwart and Hochart look into four scenarios for where the JUMBOs came from. Note that their models do not actually handle the formation of the objects. They seem to assume they formed either around a star as conventional secular theories say, or they formed in the star cluster with the stars. For them to form around a star is the conventional notion of naturalistic formation by gravity. The second option of forming in the nebula as the stars are believed to have formed is unconventional but still naturalistic. So the computer simulations of Zwart and Hochart only look at if you start with one arrangement of stars and planets and let it run, what happens? Then if you start with a different arrangement of stars and planets and let it run again, what happens?

The four scenarios modeled in the simulations were referred to with acronyms SPP, SPM, FFC, and ISF. SPP represents Star Planet-Planet. This assumes that in the star cluster some of the stars originally form with two planets orbiting them. Then something happens causing both planets to escape the gravity of their star. Of course, this would have to have happened for at least 20 different systems to explain 40 binaries. Then there is SPM, which means Star Planet-Moon. In this case stars in the cluster form with a planet that has at least one moon. Then the planet with its moon is ejected away from the star somehow. So, in this scenario, the moon continues to orbit the planet, though the planet moves away from the star and the orbit of the moon around the planet would change. The authors pointed out that in their simulations, for this to explain the number of Jupiter Mass Objects and JUMBOs, the planet would have to start a long distance from its star as it formed (such as up to 200 A.U.), so that it would be relatively easy for the planet to be pulled away from the star. Thus, this scenario is unrealistic for explaining so many JUMBOs.

The third scenario examined by the authors was FFC, for Free-Floating Capture. In this scenario, the planets initially form from in a disk surrounding a star by the conventional concept. But, then the planets become separate from their stars later. Then the separated planets come near enough to each other to capture each other and start orbiting together. This requires two mysterious events, first something making the planets escape their star and then another chance interaction where two planets come near enough to capture each other. In this scenario, the planets start conventionally, become JMOs, then become JUMBOs. Note that this is all happening within a nebula and within a star cluster, not in empty space. The authors made the following comment about the SPP and FFC scenarios: “The SPP and FFC models systematically fail to reproduce the observed population of JuMBOs by a factor of 50 to 400.

This leaves the ISF scenario, which represents “In situ” formation. This is where the planets are assumed to form in the star cluster in the same manner as the stars. However, in this scenario, many JUMBOs exist at the start. So many of the planets initially form as planet-planet pairs in the star cluster. How this would happen is left a mystery and not addressed by the authors of the paper. The authors also looked at what happens to the JUMBOs over time. They tend to break up and do not last long. They made the following statement about this: “Overall, the JuMBO survival rate decreases rapidly with a half-life < 1 Myr.” So after the star cluster formed, there would be many JUMBOs and the number of JUMBOs would decrease over time. Presumably some JUMBOs that separate and become JMOs could reform into binary pairs again. But the authors conclude that the ISF scenario best explains the large number of JMOs and JUMBOs. I was surprised the authors came to this conclusion.

It will be interesting to see how this is received by the scientific community. I suspect that planetary scientists will react against the authors ISF scenario because it raises difficult questions of how could planets form as binaries without a star? There is not a accepted scientific model for formation of planets like this. However, a variation on the ISF idea could be what you might call In situ Creation, or ISC. This would be to assume the binary planets were supernaturally created in the beginning with the star cluster (along with some JMOs). Then the number of JUMBOs decreases over time to the present. This would work in a young universe approach. Another possibility might involve some catastrophic scenario for the nebula or the star cluster that could explain how many planets could be pulled away from their star in a relatively short time. NASA has indicated the age of the Orion Nebula is only 2 million years. What effect would a supernova have if it were near a star cluster containing planets?

There will undoubtedly be more investigation of the possibilities to explain these surprising objects. There have been rogue planets found in other nebulas. What will the James Webb Space Telescope find in other nebulas? What other models will be put forward to explain objects like this? The density of stars in the cluster could be important in these models as well as the kind of matter in the nebula. I believe in not jumping to conclusions too quickly, as Treebeard said in Lord of the Rings, “Now now, don’t be hasty.” But I think belief in God is not undermined by new discoveries. Fortunately for us, our dear planet Earth was not placed in a star cluster like Trapezium. As we learn how to interpret the scientific evidence, new discoveries can actually validate a Biblical viewpoint.

The Mysteries of Fomalhaut

At a distance of 25 Light-Years from Earth is a trinary star system that has been of much interest to scientists. There has also been a controversy regarding whether it hosts an exoplanet that has been called “Fomalhaut b.” This possible exoplanet has also been given the name of “Dagon” which was the name of one of the false gods of the Philistines in Old Testament times. In multiple star systems if a capital letter is used it refers to one of the stars but if a lower-case letter is used it refers to an exoplanet. Thus, to say “Fomalhaut B” refers to the second star but “Fomalhaut b” refers to the first exoplanet. Scientists never use a lower case “a” in reference to exoplanets. Fomalhaut A is the brightest star of the three and it has a very large dust disk around it. This disk has been imaged recently with the James Webb Space Telescope, revealing that there is much more to the disk than scientists expected. There are three separate rings in the Fomalhaut A disk, which spreads out for 150 Astronomical Units distance from the star. Fomalhaut C also has a disk, but it hasn’t generated as much interest apparently. Fomalhaut C is farther away but it orbits the center of gravity of Fomalhaut A and B. Fomalhaut A and B are just under one A.U. apart and they orbit around the common center of gravity between them. Fomalhaut B is also known as a flare star. It is variable and has very strong solar flares periodically.

The large disk around Fomalhaut A is an interesting study in what our scientific methods can and cannot tell us. In 2008 it was reported that using the Hubble Space Telescope, an object could be seen having moved in the disk between 2004 and 2006. It was believed to be an exoplanet and it was called Fomalhaut b. It was occassionally observed a few other times up to including 2012 and 2013 by various researchers. It was still considered an exoplanet at that time. In fact, in 2015 the IAU completed a contest for allowing people to submit names for exoplanets and other objects. The IAU adopted the name “Dagon” as the official name of exoplanet Fomalhaut b. However, in April 2020 a scientific paper was published arguing that the object called Fomalhaut b had disappeared and showed characteristics of it being a cloud from a collision instead of a planet. So it may have never been a real planet. The Fomalhaut A disk is enormous and probably very thick, so it could hide sizable objects. So there is currently a difference of opinion among scientists on the existence of Fomalhaut b. It can be a healthy thing for us fallible human beings to run into the limits of what we know so we have to deal with something that is uncertain or unclear. Time can clarify things, as we learn more. I do not mean to criticize scientists regarding either point of view on whether Fomalhaut b exists or not. I would lean for the moment toward the view that it was a cloud from a collision and not a planet. But we may have to wait and see what is discovered next.

The picture below diagrams the various rings found around Fomalhaut A. Such as disk is referred to as a “debri disk.” To understand the various comments from scientists on this, it is important to understand the difference between a “protoplanetary disk” and a “debri disk.” A protoplanetary disk has both gas and dust and these are not really observed, though whether there are actual examples might be considered debatable. A protoplanetary disk exists early in the process after the star has formed and planets and other asteroid-like objects may have not yet formed. The gas is believed to be key to the process of planet formation. The presence of the gas is believed to help planet migration happen and it provides gas for gaseous planets. But the gas dissipates or is absorbed by the star or the planets in less than 10 million years according to models. After the gas dissipates away then solid objects and planets may collide, generating dust. So at Fomalhaut, scientists would not expect planets to form from the disk that exists now. But they would expect there to be sizable objects there somewhere because in their view, some type of objects had to collide to generate the disk and its rings. The gaps in the rings are also thought to suggest there are objects that have “sculpted” the rings, forming the gaps. The James Webb telescope uses infrared and zeros in on three different frequencies of light which detects dust. Dust turns out to be rather bright in infrared, but macroscopic objects like asteroids or planets are dark and faint in infrared. At the present time, there is not clear evidence of either planets or asteroids in the Fomalhaut rings.

JWST Fomalhaut image
Fomalhaut A debri disk showing three belts. Source Space Telescope Science Institute.

In trying to take a biblical view of things, I would say we don’t know if God created planets at Fomalhaut or not. God could have created multiple dust rings with no planets or asteroids. The evidence at other stars with disks may be different as well. There is a tendancy in astronomy for scientists to assume a history of the system that we do not and cannot know for sure. Physics can give some insight on how a system may change over time or about the way objects interact. But physics does not necessarily tell us the initial conditions in the beginning. Computer simulations can give insight as well but there is always a limitation of a computer simulation. How can you be sure the simulation represents conditions like those in the real system? Scientists would like to see some confirmation of accepted theories of the formation of extra-solar systems. They would like to find evidence of asteroids or planets so there is an indication that collisions formed the dust rings at Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut’s third ring is about 150 A.U. in diameter; so, this would require multiple collisions of small bodies or a catastrophic collision of a large planet. The burning question raised to scientists is “where are the planets?”

Sometimes God seems to arrange events so as to go against human expectations and humble us as human beings. This brings up an account from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. It is ironic that Fomalhaut b was named “Dagon.” I don’t know who suggested this name or why it was proposed. Fomalhaut b appears to not be a real exoplanet and in the story in 1 Samuel, Dagon was shown to be a false god. So there is an ironic parallel in using the Dagon name for this exoplanet. To really get the whole story would require reading 1 Samuel chapters 2-7. But the key part for my purpose is mainly in chapter 5. In ancient Israel there was a priest named Eli who had two sons but his sons were sinful and when Israel’s leaders were corrupt things did not go well for the nation. The Israelite army attacked the Philistines and lost the battle. About 4,000 Israelite men were killed in that battle. So then the Israelites decided to go get the Ark of God (the Ark of the Covenant) and take it into battle. They treated it as if it were like a simple outward rule doing what God required, as if God did not know what they were really thinking. They thought that like in the past if they took the Ark into battle that they would win just because they had the Ark. But God taught them a costly lesson. They took the Ark into battle and the Philistines saw the Ark and were afraid because they had heard the stories of what had happened in the past when the Israelites defeated other armies while they had the Ark. But the power was never in the Ark itself, but in God himself being with them. In spite of their fear, the Philistines fought the Israelites. So in this particular situation, the Philistines, sinful and unbelieving though they were, were showing more awareness in some ways than the Israelites! So in the battle the Philistines won and the Israelites lost 30,000 men! Also, the Philistines took the Ark of God. The Philistines praised their god, Dagon, and they took the Ark of God and put it in the temple of Dagon.

The following morning the Philistines went to their temple and found that Dagon’s statue had fallen on its face in front of the Ark of God. So, the Philistines seemed to think little of it. They sat Dagon’s statue back in its place. Then the next morning when they went back to their temple, Dagon had fallen down again and this time its head and its hands were broken off. This was not a prank from the Israelites. After taking such a beating from the Philistines, no Israelite would have dared to do something like this in the Philistine temple. Then the Philistines seemed to debate for some time what to do with the Ark of God. First, they moved it out of the temple to another city called Gath. But after moving it the people of Gath broke out with tumors. So they moved it once again to the city of Ekron, and again in Ekron there was an outbreak of tumors and people were dying. Eventually, they sent it back to Israel on a cart pulled by two cows. Both the Israelites and the Philistines got lessons in taking God seriously. It is a sobering story.

I’m not saying the scientists looking for an exoplanet at Fomalhaut are like the Philistines (or like the Israelites for that matter). There is nothing wrong with searching for a planet at Fomalhaut. In science there may be different opinions from scientists as research continues. But there is something to say for having a bit of humility and realizing we don’t know everything. The Old Testament contains accounts of many amazing miracles God did in the past. The Old Testament also mentions known people groups, and places and events confirmed by historical evidence. But whether scientists theories are right or wrong, God ultimately gets the last word.