‘They are allowed to exist by theory, but no one has ever detected them’

An orange dot around a black background is circled. Next to that orange dot are two smaller orange dots, also circled, one with a solid line and one with a dotted line.
This telescope image shows the young planetary system PDS 70, which features a star at its centre. The planet PDS 70b (highlighted with a solid yellow circle) is in the same orbit as a cloud of debris (circled by a yellow dotted line) that could be evidence of another planet. New planets are forming in the surrounding ring. (ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Balsalobre-Ruza)

A recent astronomical discovery has thrown into question our understanding of planetary systems. Astronomers unveiled what could be the first instance of two planets cozily sharing the same orbit around a single star. This celestial choreography, long theorized but never observed, has ignited a firestorm of excitement within the scientific community.

The observation originated from a Spanish-led team using a powerful telescope in Chile. Their keen eyes fell upon a curious phenomenon – a cloud of debris seemingly tracing the same path as a previously confirmed planet orbiting a distant star in the Centaurus constellation, a staggering 370 light-years from Earth. They suspect it’s either a planet in formation or remnants of a planet that once was.

While asteroids are commonplace companions to planets, their orbits typically remain distinct. Jupiter, for instance, boasts a retinue of Trojan asteroids that share its general orbital path but maintain a specific positioning. However, planets cohabiting a single orbit have remained as elusive as mythical creatures. “They are allowed to exist by theory, but no one has ever detected them,” remarked Jorge Lillo-Box, co-author of the study and researcher at the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid.

The scientists estimate they will need to wait until 2026 to definitively track the celestial dance of these two objects around their stellar host, designated PDS 70. The already confirmed planet, suspected to be accompanied by a cosmic companion, takes a leisurely 119 years to complete a lap. This behemoth is a gas giant, it’s three times the size of Jupiter. Interestingly, another gas giant is known to orbit this star, albeit from a much greater distance.

Olga Balsalobre-Ruza, lead author of the study and fellow researcher at the Center for Astrobiology, said the findings, published in the esteemed journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, as “the first evidence” of such a binary planetary configuration. “We can imagine that a planet can share its orbit with thousands of asteroids as in the case of Jupiter, but it is mind-blowing to me that planets could share the same orbit,” she said in a statement.

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