Working Group on Extrasolar Planets

Defintion of a "Planet"



Created: February 28, 2001

Last Modified: February 28, 2003

Rather than try to construct a detailed definition of a planet which is designed to cover all future possibilities, the WGESP has agreed to restrict itself to developing a working definition applicable to the cases where there already are claimed detections, e.g., the radial velocity surveys of companions to (mostly) solar-type stars, and the imaging surveys for free-floating objects in young star clusters. As new claims are made in the future, the WGESP will weigh their individual merits and circumstances, and will try to fit the new objects into the WGESP definition of a "planet", revising this definition as necessary. This is a gradualist approach with an evolving definition, guided by the observations that will decide all in the end.

Emphasizing again that this is only a working definition, subject to change as we learn more about the census of low-mass companions, the WGESP has agreed to the following statements:

1) Objects with true masses below the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium (currently calculated to be 13 Jupiter masses for objects of solar metallicity) that orbit stars or stellar remnants are "planets" (no matter how they formed). The minimum mass/size required for an extrasolar object to be considered a planet should be the same as that used in our Solar System.

2) Substellar objects with true masses above the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium are "brown dwarfs", no matter how they formed nor where they are located.

3) Free-floating objects in young star clusters with masses below the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium are not "planets", but are "sub-brown dwarfs" (or whatever name is most appropriate).

These statements are a compromise between definitions based purely on the deuterium-burning mass or on the formation mechanism, and as such do not fully satisfy anyone on the WGESP. However, the WGESP agrees that these statements constitute the basis for a reasonable working definition of a "planet" at this time. We can expect this definition to evolve as our knowledge improves.