BBC reports the exciting discovery of a planet whose skies are illuminated by four different suns – the first known of its type. This exciting finding was made by two US volunteers, Kian Jek of San Francisco and Robert Gagliano from Cottonwood, Arizona, by using the Planet Hunters website.
The planet, located just under 5,000 light-years away, has been named PH1 after the Planet Hunters site and it is thought to be a “gas giant” slightly larger than Neptune – more than six times the radius of the Earth.
“You don’t have to go back too far before you would have got really good odds against one of these systems existing,” Dr Chris Lintott, from the University of Oxford, told BBC News.
“All four stars pulling on it creates a very complicated environment. Yet there it sits in an apparently stable orbit.That’s really confusing, which is one of the things which makes this discovery so fun. It’s absolutely not what we would have expected.”
Binary stars – systems with pairs of stars – are not uncommon. But only a handful of known exoplanets (planets that circle other stars) have been found to orbit such binaries. And none of these binary systems are known to have another pair of stars circling them.
Asked how this planet remained in a stable orbit whilst being pulled on by the gravity of four stars, Dr Lintott said: “There are six other well-established planets around double stars, and they’re all pretty close to those stars. So I think what this is telling us is planets can form in the inner parts of protoplanetary discs (the torus of dense gas that gives rise to planetary systems).
“The planets are forming close in and are able to cling to a stable orbit there. That probably has implications for how planets form elsewhere.”