A weird cousin of our solar system is caught on camera

It offers the first photo of a sunlike star with multiple exoplanets

The star TYC 8998-760-1 (top center) was photographed with its two giant exoplanets (arrows). The bright spots above star TYC 8998-760-1 are other background stars.

Bohn et al/ESO

For the first time, astronomers have captured a portrait of a distant family of planets and their sunlike star. The scientists used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to snap the photo. It shows two giant exoplanets orbiting a young star. Called TYC 8998-760-1, that star has about the same mass as our sun. It sits about 300 light-years from Earth.

Both of its visible planets are unlike anything seen in our solar system. The inner one has some 14 times the mass of Jupiter and is 160 times farther from its star than Earth is from our sun. The outer planet weighs six times Jupiter’s mass. It orbits at twice its sibling’s distance. At just 17 million years old, this planetary family is a youngster compared to our 4-billion-year-old solar system.

Alexander Bohn works as an astronomer at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He and his team described their discovery July 20 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters

To date, astronomers have found thousands of exoplanets. Most aren’t viewed directly. Often they show up as shadows crossing in front of their stars. Or scientists sometimes infer a planet’s existence from unseen forces tugging at stars.

Photos of planets orbiting other stars are rare. Up until now, just two had shown a star with more than one planet. Neither of those stars is sunlike, notes Bohn. One star is more massive than the sun, the other is less massive.

The newfound exoplanet family could help scientists better understand how solar systems form. Says Bohn, “This discovery makes us aware of other scenarios that we did not think of.”

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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