A planet accompanied by not one, but four suns, has been discovered deep in space by two part-time astronomers. In what has been billed as one of the most exciting recent developments in the study of the universe, the planet and its four suns have been spotted in a galaxy 5,000 light years from Earth.
The extraterrestrial world was discovered by American volunteers in collaboration with the website PlanetHunters.org, run by a team of scientists including Dr Chris Lintott of the UK’s Oxford University. PlanetHunters.org relies on its international panel of ‘armchair astronomers’ to collect and interpret data in its scientific quest for new groundbreaking discoveries.
Individual volunteers use the website to study the outputs of light coming from far-off stars. Any dip in the star’s luminosity could potentially be the transit of an exoplanet passing in front and blocking the starlight seen from telescopes on Earth. It was this effect, spotted by Kian Jek of San Francisco and colleague Robert Gagliano from the small town of Cottonwood, Arizona, that helped uncover the new world. Jek & Gagliano’s discovery has been confirmed by a team of professionals based at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawai’i, and has been formally announced at the United States’ Division for Planetary Sciences in Reno, Nevada meeting this past Tuesday.
The planet, believed to be made of rock and heavy minerals just like Earth, is estimated to be six times larger than our planet.
While many exoplanets have been discovered outside our solar system orbiting two stars – a binary star setup – this is the first time a planet with a four-star configuration has been reported.
The planet orbits one pair of stars, as with those in binary star systems, but unusually, it is in turn circled by a second pair of suns at a distance of several billion kilometres away.
Astronomers are still as yet intrigued how the planet came into existence in such an unusual placement. In an interview with The Independent newspaper last week, Dr. Lintott said of the discovery “It’s fascinating to try and imagine what it would be like to visit a planet with four suns in its sky, but this new world is confusing astronomers – it’s not at all clear how it formed in such a busy environment”. Normally, four stars in such close proximity would be expected to have a massive enough collective field of gravity that any planet-forming dust clouds would have been torn apart and incinerated.
The planet has now been named PH1, after the website that helped discover it. PH1 lies at such a distance that it would take 40,000 years for humans to reach it, using our current space exploration technology. Very little is known of PH1 including whether if it is the only planet in its solar system. As the tally of exoplanets increases every month, the possibility of finding more worlds like PH1 is a given certainty in our search for another Earth – and potentially another world to visit and colonise.
Many thanks to Sunny Atwal for suggesting today’s article.
“’Armchair astronomers’ discover planet with four suns” – John von Radowitz, Press Association & The Independent (Independent.co.uk) LINK