October 23, 2021

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Astronomers May Have Just Discovered A Planet Orbiting Three Stars


Early last year, using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) astronomers found an intriguing star system.

Near the Orion constellation, some 1,300 light-years away from Earth, is the budding star system, GW Ori. At its centre lies not one, but three young stars.

A huge disk of gas and dust, similar to that of Saturn’s rings, surrounds the system. Clouds of dust and gas surrounding young star systems is pretty common and help with the formation of new planets.

However, the disk gas and dust surrounding GW Ori were different, and had a mysterious gap in between, splitting the disk into two parts.

This had puzzled astronomers, and previous research had tried to explain the gap, by hyphening that the gravitational torque from the three stars might have created the gap.

Now after modelling the GW Ori system in extensive detail, researchers think the actual reason behind the gap might be something far more surprising, as reported by the New York Times.

In a paper published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, researchers from the University of Nevada say the formation of one or more planets in the gas cloud could be the reason behind the gap.

If the researchers are right, it would be the first circumtriple planet—a planet orbiting three stars—to have been discovered.

 

The disk of gas and dust surrounding GW Ori. Credit: ALMA/ESO

“It may be the first evidence of a circumtriple planet carving a gap in real-time,” Jeremy Smallwood, lead author of the paper, and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas told the New York Times.

Although the planet (or planets) cannot be seen, researchers think the formation of a giant gaseous planet would be the best explanation for the mysterious gap in the dust cloud. Astronomers might have stumbled upon an “infant” planet, that is just a few million years old, carving itself an orbit.

Cover Image: Shutterstock



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