The first captured glance of another solar system that is, at least in part, similar to our own. Although astronomers have long glimpsed at other stars, many have very few planets orbiting them, often perhaps only one. Or those that have multiple planets, but orbiting a star that is very different to ours.
In the image above, captured by European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, we see a star – not too disimilar to our own – and two large gas giants orbiting it. The star, named TYC 8998-760-1, should be fairly obvious. Her system are the two large points (one yellowy/white and the other reddy/orange) leading south-east down towards the bottom-right of the frame. The planets, probably much like our gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, are named TYC 8998-760-1b and TYC 8998-760-1c.
Although we know there are solar systems out there that have multiple planets orbiting a star, finding one that has a star similar to our own isn’t as easy to find. And then, once found, one that has a few planets even harder.
The major difference of note between this system and the one we call home is age. Our star is a smidge over 4.6 billion years, about middle-aged, one could say. TYC 8998-760-1 is only about 17 million years old. She’s a baby. And just looking at the image and allowing curiosity to take hold, one can only presume the cloud-like ring surrounding her is what will eventually become some rocky planets.
The other issue of note is that it is only recently we have realised that actually, our system is perhaps not typical. Because we haven’t before had technology to observe other systems in our galaxy, we could only assume that other systems are arranged similarly, with a few rocky planets of varying sizes orbiting within a certain range, and then some large gas giants orbiting further out. And undoubtedly the remanants of what didn’t become planets forming belts in certain places.
This simply isn’t true all of the time, and it would appear from what we currently understand, perhaps our system is somewhat of an oddity. Of course, we’re dealing with numbers that we simply cannot comprehend, so defining average or typical is frankly impossible.
But this really is the first time we have seen a system of more than one planet orbiting a star that is similar to our own. By far and away – about 300 light years to be matter of factly – a landmark image.
Image © ESO/Bohn et al.