NASA discovers first planet with three stars and a waterworld

Enlarge Image NASA The sun might not be the only celestial body traveling about the sky, when all is said and done. NASA recently discovered a planet orbiting a star with one of the…

Enlarge Image NASA

The sun might not be the only celestial body traveling about the sky, when all is said and done.

NASA recently discovered a planet orbiting a star with one of the strongest signals ever found for a planetary system orbiting another star, the space agency said in a statement.

NASA scientist Rinaldo Bonura first discovered planet HD 209458b when he catalogued a system of 10 stars. Five of the stars are the sun, two are the dim stars of Spica in Virgo and another two have been identified by scientists, according to NASA. Bonura had previously discovered a star with an orbit that keeps it close to the sun, rather than far enough to become a relatively hot, Jupiter-like planet, but that star was far too small to explain the many observations made by the Chandra space telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

“It seemed unlikely that two stars with such a similar shape could have such a different planet,” Bonura said in the statement.

Meanwhile, by comparing the Chandra images of HD 209458b to images of a similar planet and star system known as the Tatooine system, scientists came to the conclusion that the star system around HD 209458b is actually three stars, two other stellar systems and an Earth-sized planet orbiting in the neighborhood of a third star.

“The relationship between the density of stars in the orbit and the number of planets has never been observed before. The simple assumption was that if you had one of these systems that had two planets that were very dense, then you would have ten or so planets like that, and there would be a very strong signal, and you wouldn’t need to see that density in order to detect a third planet. The density of star just doesn’t make sense with these numbers.”

In the statement, Michael Gillon, a PhD student at the Universite Laval in Quebec, said: “The message is that three stars instead of two is perfectly normal. It’s a missing piece of the puzzle. We’re so used to thinking of stars in only one direction, but it doesn’t make sense if you think about the way we see stars.”

The third and long missing planet must be 3,000-5,000 times the mass of the Earth and must be surrounded by water, which could include clouds and sea. The planet is incredibly hot, because it is located just 6,000 miles from the star – which is 1,000 times closer than Mercury orbits the sun.

The planet will pass in front of the star every 26 days, creating a moment when the light from the sun glows toward the planet while the planet slips from view, a phenomenon known as the transit of Venus.

“That’s a bridge too far for the sun to cross,” Bonura said. “The only reason it happens when we see the transit is because of a gravitational tug-of-war. In the case of HD 209458b, there are two stars that tug at each other so strongly that they make the two stars overheat.”

The discovery adds a major character to what’s already a crowded star system. Meanwhile, it also potentially adds an Earth-sized planet, the first candidate of its kind, although it’s still too early to determine how close the planet might be to the star.

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