NASA scientists could be forced to confront doomsday conspiracy theorists once again after astronomers identified the first ever 'rogue planet' just weeks before the Mayan apocalypse is predicted to destroy the world.

The ancient Mayan calendar comes to an end on December 21 this year and some believe that this will coincide with a cataclysmic, world-ending event. And one of the most popular doomsday scenarios involves another planet, known as Nibiru or Planet X, crashing into the Earth.

The existence of such wandering planets, which do not orbit a star but instead roam the cosmos, has been widely accepted, but one had never been found. Now an international team of astronomers based in Hawaii and Chile have observed one for the first time.

According to a paper published in the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal last month, astronomers spotted the orphan "in our neighbourhood". It is said to be travelling through space with a group of young stars called the AB Doradus Moving Group.

"Although theorists had established the existence of this type of very cold and young planet, one had never been observed until today," explained Etienne Artigau of the University of Montreal, one of the report's authors.

Despite the spooky timing of the discovery, humankind can rest easy as the planet in question is actually 100 light years from earth and, unless it suddenly disappears down a worm hole, will not be crashing into us next month.

Perhaps aware of fears about Niburu or Planet X, the international team using telescopes in Hawaii and Chile have given the rogue planet a rather less catchy name, calling it CFBDSIR2149-0403.

"Rogue planets are believed to form in one of two ways: in much the same way as planets bound to stars, coalescing from a disk of dust and debris but then thrown out of a host star's orbit, or in much the same way as stars but never reaching a full star's mass," explains the BBC.

The discovery will do little to calm the fears of those who believe that the apocalypse is almost upon us and could prompt Nasa to try to dampen speculation about Earth's demise.

Last year Nasa astronomer David Morrison told the website Life's Little Mysteries that there were two million websites "discussing the impending Nibiru-Earth collision" and that he got, on average, five emails a day about the rogue planet.

And just this week the organisation reiterated that the world would not end next month. "Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an internet hoax," it insisted. "There is no factual basis for these claims. If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye. Obviously, it does not exist." ·

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