A Newly Discovered Planet is in Orbit With 3 Suns
“Imagine this: a planet where you'd enjoy triple sunrises and sunsets each day.”
Space travel is still a work in progress, but that doesn't mean we can't dream of a day when we escape Earth's orbit for a galactic getaway.
There's so much beyond our solar system, and astronomers are always learning more. On Thursday, a team of astronomers at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, announced the discovery of a new planet, called HD 131399Ab, in the journal Science.
The planet “is unlike any other known world,” and sits about 340 light years away from Earth, in the constellation Centaurus, according to the astronomers.
“For about half of the planet's orbit, which lasts 550 Earth-years, three stars are visible in the sky, the fainter two always much closer together, and changing in apparent separation from the brightest star throughout the year,” said Kevin Wagner, a first-year PhD student who discovered the new planet.
“It feels really incredible to find a planet,” Wagner told Travel + Leisure, “especially such an unusual one, and one of the first that we have actual pictures of.”
One of the three stars is much larger than the other two — and about 80 percent larger than our Sun — and HD 121299Ab orbits (very slowly) around it. Meanwhile, the other two much smaller stars “twirl around each other like a spinning dumbbell.”
“For much of the planet's year the stars appear close together, giving it a familiar night-side and day-side with a unique triple-sunset and sunrise each day,” Wagner said. “As the planet orbits and the stars grow further apart each day, they reach a point where the setting of one coincides with the rising of the other — at which point the planet is in near-constant daytime for about one-quarter of its orbit, or roughly 140 Earth-years.”
Wagner is part of a research group, led by University of Arizona Assistant Professor Daniel Apai, that focuses on finding and observing exoplanets. Astronomers are interested in planets with multiple stars because they can be seen as case studies in planet formation.
As for a name more fitting to a new world, Wagner says he's working on it.
“I’ve been trying to think of something, but haven’t been struck by anything excellent yet. I agree that the catalog name isn’t the most flattering for this beautiful new world.”
While the announcement says that multi-star systems only seem more interesting to us because of “our orbit around our solitary star,” we'll hold on to our daydreams of triple sunsets.
If you have questions about the newly discovered planet, the scientists involved will be doing a Q&A on Reddit on Thursday at 5 p.m. ET.