It hardly seems possible, but researchers have detected a planet in apparently stable orbit within a three star system — a configuration now known as a trinary.
The ubiquity of binary stars has been understood for some time, and the presence of exoplanets orbiting around and within them is no longer a surprise. But this newest planet detected — four times the mass of Jupiter — is most unusual because trinary systems are not known to be particularly conducive to keeping planets in orbit, and especially not a planet in an extremely wide (i.e., 550 year) orbit.
Yet this planet has found the sweet spot between the stars where it balances the gravitational pulls of the three. The system is a relative toddler at 16 million years old, and so the researchers involved in its detection say it may later be ejected from the system. But for now, it is the only known planet of its kind.
The discovery, reported in the journal Science, was made using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile’s Atacama desert. The team was from the University of Arizona in Tucson and was led by Daniel Apai, an assistant professor of Astronomy and Planetary Sciences who leads a planet finding and observing group. That team includes research doctoral student Kevin Wagner, the first author on the paper.
“It is not clear how this planet ended up on its wide orbit in this extreme system — and we can’t say yet what this means for our broader understanding of the types of planetary systems — but it shows that there is more variety out there than many would have deemed possible,” Wagner said.
This new planet is a gas giant and definitely not habitable, but the possible universe of exoplanets that just might meet some of the basic criteria for habitability may well have grown.
“What we do know is that planets in multi-star systems have been studied far less often, but are potentially just as numerous as planets in single-star systems,” Wagner said.… Read more