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Key takeaways

  • A young star, TYC 8998-760-1, 300 light-years away, hosts two massive exoplanets.
  • Astronomers used the Very Large Telescope to capture the first direct images of these exoplanets.
  • The exoplanets are gas giants, one 14 times the mass of Jupiter and the other 6 times.
  • These exoplanets have wide orbits, much farther than Pluto’s orbit around the Sun.
  • Future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope may discover more planets in this system and provide more details about their atmospheres.

A star little over 300 light-years away resembles a very youthful version of our Sun and is orbited by many exoplanets. That is a fascinating discovery in and of itself. But what genuinely amazes me about the system is that it is the first of its kind to be directly seen, planets included.

On the night of February 16, 2020, researchers using Chile’s Very wide Telescope were able to make direct observations of two massive exoplanets in extraordinarily wide orbits around the star TYC 8998-760-1.

Directly photographing exoplanets is difficult, to say the least. They are faint in comparison to their host stars and far distant from us. The majority of the roughly 4,000 exoplanets discovered to far have only been spotted indirectly, such as weak, regular dips in the star’s light when the exoplanet passes in front of it, or a minor wobble in the star’s location caused by the exoplanet’s gravity.

Because these signals are easier to detect when the planet is massive and close to the star, the vast majority of verified exoplanets are huge and in tight orbit. However, exoplanets in extremely near orbits are difficult to observe directly, since they tend to be significantly outshone by their home stars; whereas far orbiting planets in older systems are too cool for infrared detection.

To far, only a few tens of exoplanets have been directly seen, along with two additional multi-planet systems orbiting stars extremely different from the Sun.

But this year, using direct imaging, a team of astronomers led by Alexander Bohn of Leiden University in the Netherlands discovered an odd planet circling TYC 8998-760-1.

It was a gas giant with a mass around 14 times that of Jupiter, circling the star at a distance of approximately 160 astronomical units. To put this into context, Pluto circles the Sun at an average distance of 39 astronomical units.

So Bohn and his colleagues decided to investigate further, utilizing the Very Large Telescope’s exoplanet-imaging SPHERE instrument. They obtained various observations throughout the previous year and added them to data from 2017.

When all of the data were combined, they revealed a surprise. They anticipated to observe the exoplanet TYC 8998-760-1 b, which was clear and brilliant. However, at a far larger distance of 320 astronomical units, the researchers saw another brilliant dot.

Careful examination and comparison of photos acquired at various periods indicated that this was not a star or a glitch, but rather a second, smaller exoplanet with a mass around six times that of Jupiter. It’s called TYC 8998-760-1 c.

“Our team has now been able to take the first image of two gas giant companions that are orbiting a young, solar analogue,” stated astronomer Maddalena Reggiani from KU Leuven in Belgium.

Such photos are not only incredible scientific and technological achievements; they may also help us better comprehend planetary systems.

For starters, TYC 8998-760-1 is rather young, dating back just 16.7 million years. Exoplanets orbiting young Sun-like stars can provide significant information on the genesis of planetary systems similar to our own.

“Our team has now been able to take the first image of two gas giant companions that are orbiting a young, solar analogue,” stated astronomer Maddalena Reggiani from KU Leuven in Belgium.

Such photos are not only incredible scientific and technological achievements; they may also help us better comprehend planetary systems.

For starters, TYC 8998-760-1 is rather young, dating back just 16.7 million years. Exoplanets orbiting young Sun-like stars can provide significant information on the genesis of planetary systems similar to our own.

The team’s discovered orbital distance is already intriguing, because one concept of planetary system formation holds that large planets form at a distance before moving inwards towards their host star.

For another, direct photographs of exoplanets can aid in the quest for habitability. Detailed spectroscopic photos, which break down the spectrum of light reflected off an exoplanet, can indicate the presence of an atmosphere and its composition. Photometry, or the study of planetary brightness and variations, can provide information regarding cloud cover and abundance.

We’re not quite there yet, but future devices like the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s ground-based Extremely Large Telescope should be sensitive enough to begin making such detections.

They may even be able to discover smaller, closer planets in this system that SPHERE missed.

“The possibility that future instruments, such as those available on the Extremely Large Telescope, will be able to detect even lower-mass planets around this star marks an important milestone in understanding multi-planet systems, with potential implications for the history of our own Solar System,” according to Bohn.

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