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First Planet Under Three Suns Is Discovered

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An extrasolar planet under three suns has been discovered in the constellation Cygnus by a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology using the 10-meter Keck I telescope in Hawaii. The planet is slightly larger than Jupiter and, given that it has to contend with the gravitational pull of three bodies, promises to seriously challenge our current understanding of how planets are formed.

In the July 14 issue of Nature, Maciej Konacki, a senior postdoctoral scholar in planetary science at Caltech, reports on the discovery of the Jupiter-class planet orbiting the main star of the close-triple-star system known as HD 188753. The three stars are roughly 149 light-years from Earth and are about as close to one another as the distance between the sun and Saturn.

In other words, a viewer there would see three bright suns in the sky. In fact, the sun that the planet orbits would be a very large object in the sky indeed, given that the planet’s “year” is only three and a half days long. And it would be yellow, because the main star of HD 188753 is very similar to our own sun. The larger of the other two suns would be orange, and the smaller red.

Darth TaterKonacki refers to the new type of planet as “Tatooine planets,” because of the similarity to Luke Skywalker’s view of his home planet’s sky in the first Star Wars movie.

“The environment in which this planet exists is quite spectacular,” says Konacki. “With three suns, the sky view must be out of this world-literally and figuratively.”

However, Konacki adds that the fact that a planet can even exist in a multiple-star system is amazing in itself. Binary and multiple stars are quite common in the solar neigborhood, and in fact outnumber single stars by some 20 percent.

Researchers have found most of the extrasolar planets discovered so far by using a precision velocity technique that is easier to employ on studies of single stars. Experts generally avoided close-binary and close-multiple stars because the existing planet detection techniques fail for such complicated systems, and also because theories of solar-system formation suggested that planets were very unlikely to form in such environments.

Konacki’s breakthrough was made possible by his development of a novel method that allows him to precisely measure velocities of all members of close-binary and close-multiple-star systems. He used the technique in a search for extrasolar planets in such systems with the Keck I telescope. The planet in the HD 188753 system is the first one from this survey.

“If we believe that the same basic processes lead to the formation of planets around single stars and components of multiple stellar systems, then such processes should be equally feasible, regardless of the presence of stellar companions,” Konacki says. “Planets from complicated stellar systems will put our theories of planet formation to a strict test.”

Also posted at VERMONT SPACE
(Yer no sun of mine!)

Edited: LH

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About Bennett Dawson

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Bennett, you need to stop turning science fiction into fact:)

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    I suggest you put a caption stating ‘artist’s representation’, else people will believe you have access to a wormhole or something.

    You don’t, do you?

  • Bennett

    Heh! Now, that wouldn’t be nearly as fun. I am trying to stay away from my scarier books, for now.

    Piss me off and I’ll start reading about the Kzin again.

  • Bennett

    If you hover over the pic, “Space Art!” pops up. The alt description. Not enough you think?

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    I find it interesting that there would be three stars of such different ages in the same region – one’s going to go super-nova relatively soon, and then – Ta ta Tatooine!

  • Bennett

    Yeah, it’s amazing that this configuration could exist at all.

    “ta ta tatooine” :-) Funny, that.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    This is seriously cool stuff, Bennett. Amazing that mind-blowing discoveries are being made all the time.

    It’s amazing that space news — where real exploration is being made — isn’t bigger news.

    Anyway, I wouldn’t have learned about this were it not for Blogcritics…

  • Bennett

    I agree Eric. We live in exciting times of discovery. I only wish I could have thought of naming this post

    “My Three Suns – Luke Skywalker Style”

    about fifteen minutes ago….

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    I don’t see the alt in Firefox.

    Never mind, though – I’m actually reading Edward Tufte and he talks about (mis)representation of quantifiable data at length.

    I guess we know which one is the Dark Star:)

  • Duane

    Very interesting stuff, Bennett. Thanks.

    None of the three stars in the system have sufficient mass to supernova. They will end their main sequence lives as white dwarfs (not dwarves, btw). My guess is that the Jupiter-class planet is a failed star, lacking the mass to initiate stellar fusion in the core. It would have been a quadruple system. So, unless more planets are discovered in the HD 188753 system, it may not challenge theories of planetary formation that much. It’s still fascinating.

  • Bennett

    Damn! Thanks for that Duane.

    Aaman – disclaimer added.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    The artist’s rendering seems quite pertinent to the discovery. A planet slightly larger than Jupiter might not have a solid surface safe for a photographer to stand on.

    The artist appears to portray the view from a rocky moon of a gas giant planet, which is a plausible likelihood given our available data. Every planet that size in our system is a gas giant, and every one of them has multiple rocky moons.

    Two suns are visible well above the horizon. A third sun is partly visible although less than half of it is above the horizon.

    All these details could fit the newly discovered planet, although of course we won’t know for sure how many of them actually do fit until we get around to sending a camera there.

  • Bennett

    Good call Victor! I didn’t think of it as a view from a moon of the gas giant. You, da man!

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    With three suns, maybe it’s a forest moon. Yub yub!

  • Bennett

    Yub!

    Lightsabers? Yep. Camera? Yep. Penis? Nope…”

    Just killer Victor!

  • Bennett

    Aw shit, I screwed up the link.

    Hey YO! Click on Victor’s link, NOT Bennett’s

  • http://mistwereld.blogspot.com Floris Vermeir

    I’d agree whith Eric, most likley I wouldn’t have known about this, if you didn’t post it.

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