Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Planet found to orbit four suns

We all know the earth orbits the sun, similar to the way other planets in our solar system do. The ever-increasing abilities of telescopes have revealed that we are by far not the only solar system; our own galaxy contains billions of them, and we have already found other planets orbiting stars. A recent discovery found that stars do not necessarily need to have several planets in their orbit. In fact, a single planet was shown to orbit a total of four stars. So far, no similar discoveries have ever been made.

The discoverers named the planet PH1, and it is about 5000 light years away from us, which, relatively speaking, is not that far. It is a gas giant, meaning it is not solid like the earth. In terms of size, it is slightly bigger than Neptune, and about six times the size of our own earth. Other interesting characteristics of this peculiar planet have yet to be determined. 

Planet hunters
By making use of the website Planethunters.org and data captured by the Kepler space telescope, a group of volunteers made this peculiar discovery. Planethunters enables everyone with an interest in astronomy to look at the vast amount of data that is collected by Kepler. Because this particular telescope is in orbit high above the earth, it is able to see much more than conventional telescopes on the earthly surface, which is why scientists have called for a community-driven search. Kepler has already given us many planetary discoveries, but this is the first time the discovery has been made by using Planethunters.

Perhaps equally peculiar as being in the orbital range of four stars is the fact that PH1 is able to maintain a fairly stable orbit around two of the stars. Another pair of stars was found to be in orbit of the first two, making it quite a complex situation. It is therefore quite surprising that the planet, which is quite a bit smaller than a star and therefore exercises less gravitational pull, manages to hold its own: stars are much bigger than planets, which means it would have been far more likely that one of them would have knocked PH1 off its course.

While it is not uncommon that a planet orbits two stars, having a second pair of stars orbiting in the same gravitational range is unique, at least as far as we know now. Even more so, it begs the question whether Kepler will grant us more peculiar astronomical findings.

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