- GW Orionis (GW Ori) is a rare triple-star solar system located about 1,300 light-years from Earth, with two suns orbiting each other at the center and a third star swirling around from a distance.
- Recent studies reveal that the system’s rings of planet-forming dust may contain a young planet or the makings of one, causing gravitational imbalances and misalignments in the rings.
- The presence of a planet in GW Ori would make it the first known example of a single planet orbiting three suns simultaneously.
- Triple-star systems like GW Ori are less common due to the difficulties in reconciling the gravitational pull of three stars.
- The misaligned movements of GW Ori’s stars likely warped the system’s dusty disk, resulting in separate rings, and the presence of a planet at the breaking point between the inner and outer rings could explain the system’s strange behavior.
GW Orionis (GW Ori), located 1,300 light-years from Earth, has emerged as a fascinating triple-star solar system with potential evidence of a planet lurking within its rings. Recent studies published in Science and The Astrophysical Journal Letters suggest that the rings of dust in GW Ori may contain a young planet or the building blocks of one. The presence of a planet within the rings would explain the gravitational imbalances and misalignments observed in the system. This hypothetical planet would become the first known example of a single planet orbiting three suns simultaneously.
Snapshots of a simulation of GW Orionis, showing how its rings formed. The competing gravitational pulls of the three stars (and possibly a young planet) caused the dusty disk to tear into three distinct rings. (Image credit: Kraus et al., 2020)
The GW Ori system stands out due to its triple-star configuration, which is less common compared to binary pairs found in most solar systems. The combined gravitational pull of three stars can result in unstable systems, with the third star potentially being ejected into interstellar space. The misalignment observed in GW Ori’s rings is attributed to the gravitational interactions of its stars. The innermost ring, containing enough dust to build 30 Earth-like planets, appears to be wobbling and is misaligned with the larger outer rings.
Observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) provided valuable data for the studies. The researchers suggest that the misaligned movements of GW Ori’s stars caused the disk to tear into separate rings, a phenomenon termed the “disk-tearing effect.” However, the gravitational pull of the stars alone cannot fully explain the system’s behavior, pointing to the potential presence of an undiscovered planet at the inner-outer ring boundary.
If confirmed, the planet in GW Ori would be situated at a considerable distance from its host stars, making it an inhospitable world with a wild gravitational pull. Nevertheless, the discovery would showcase the possibility of planet formation in eccentric and misshapen solar systems. While GW Ori’s system resembles Tatooine from Star Wars, the hypothetical planet’s harsh conditions would be far from the idyllic landscape depicted in the films.
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