New York, Oct 2: In a distant star system — a mere 1,300 light years away from the Earth — US astronomers may have identified the first known planet to orbit three stars, a finding that has implications for bolstering understanding of planet formation.
Unlike our solar system, which consists of a solitary star, it is believed that half of all star systems, like GW Ori where astronomers observed the novel phenomenon, consist of two or more stars that are gravitationally bound to each other.
However, until now no planet orbiting three stars — a circumptriple orbit — has ever been discovered.
Astronomers at the University of Nevada — Las Vegas (UNLV), used observations from the powerful Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope and analysed the three observed dust rings around the three stars, which are critical to forming planets.
But they found a substantial, yet puzzling, gap in the circumtriple disc.
The research team investigated different origins, including the possibility that the gap was created by gravitational torque from the three stars. But after constructing a comprehensive model of GW Ori, they found that the more likely, and fascinating, explanation for the space in the disc is the presence of one or more massive planets, Jupiter-like in nature.
Gas giants are usually the first planets to form within a star system. Terrestrial planets like Earth and Mars follow, according to lead author Jeremy Smallwood, doctoral student in astronomy from UNLV.
The finding is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Further observations from the ALMA telescope are expected in the coming months, which could provide direct evidence of the phenomenon.
“It’s really exciting because it makes the theory of planet formation really robust,” Smallwood said. “It could mean that planet formation is much more active than we thought, which is pretty cool.”