Telescope Snaps Family Portrait of Two Giant Planets Around Baby Sun

This image made available by the European Southern Observatory in July 2020 shows the star TYC 8998-760-1, upper left, and two giant exoplanets. The image was captured by blocking the light from the young, sun-like star, allowing for the fainter planets to be detected. The system is about 300 light-years away from Earth. (Bohn et al./ESO via AP)

(CN) — Astronomers had never directly observed more than one planet orbiting a star similar to our sun until a few weeks ago, when a telescope transmitted stunning images of a planetary system 300 light-years away that may hold clues about how our galaxy formed. 

The star at the center of the newly observed planetary system is 17 million years old and located in the southern section of the Musca constellation, researchers said in a study released Wednesday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters

Researchers believe the planetary system can help other stargazers comprehend how planets formed and evolved around our sun.

Alexander Bohn of Leiden University in the Netherlands, lead researcher of the study, said in a statement Wednesday the observations show what the Milky Way looked like in early development.

“This discovery is a snapshot of an environment that is very similar to our solar system, but at a much earlier stage of its evolution,” Bohn said. 

Bohn’s team of researchers captured images of the planetary system during their search for young, giant planets around stars like our sun. 

The two gas giants are massively heavier than the ones in our solar system, according to the study. The inner planet contains 14 times Jupiter’s mass and the outer planet about six times as much. 

The exoplanets also orbit their host star — named TYC 8998-760-1 — at greater distances than planets in our solar system, with both gas giants hovering further away from their star than Jupiter or Saturn is from our sun, the study said. 

The images of the young star and the two giant exoplanets orbiting it were captured by the SPHERE instrument located on the European Southern Observatory‘s Very Large Telescope in the Chilean Atacama desert.

Using a coronagraph, SPHERE blocked the light from the young star, allowing researchers to capture very faint planets in the cosmos.

Older planets, such as those in our solar system, cannot be captured using this technique since their temperatures are much cooler, according to the study.  

Study co-author Matthew Kenworthy of Leiden University said in a statement that imaging of two or more exoplanets around the same star is extremely rare.

Only two planetary systems with those characteristics have been observed before but the suns at their centers are vastly different from our own, Kenworthy said. 

“Even though astronomers have indirectly detected thousands of planets in our galaxy, only a tiny fraction of these exoplanets have been directly imaged,” said Kenworthy, adding that “direct observations are important in the search for environments that can support life.” 

Maddalena Reggiani, postdoctoral researcher at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, said in a statement the team was able to distinguish the two planets from the background stars by snapping photos at different times. 

“Our team has now been able to take the first image of two gas giant companions that are orbiting a young, solar analog,” Reggiani said.

Bohn said the team will continue its work in order to determine whether the planetary system formed at its current location or whether it migrated from another region of space.

“The possibility that future instruments, such as those available on the ELT [Extremely Large Telescope], will be able to detect even lower-mass planets around this star marks an important milestone in understanding multi-planet systems, with potential implications for the history of our own solar system,” Bohn said. 

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