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This solar system has three stars, and that’s not even the weirdest part

Published Sep 3rd, 2020 11:13PM EDT
three star system

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  • Astronomers have observed what they believe is a triple-star system in space surrounded by a chaotic disc of dust that could form planets.
  • The stars orbit each other and the dust disc is shredded in different directions.
  • The researchers believe there’s enough material orbiting these stars to make 30 Earths.

On Earth, we see one big star, the Sun, and a whole bunch of tiny ones in the distance. Science fiction has long promised that there are planets orbiting multiple stars, and science quickly backed that up. Now, in what might be a first-of-its-kind discovery, researchers believe they’ve spotted a triple-star system with plenty of material to create exoplanets.

The research, which was published in the journal Science, can’t offer us anything conclusive in the way of a “Tatooine-like world,” but it does tease us with the possibility. Is there a planet lurking in the mass of dust and debris? We can’t help but wonder.

As the scientists explain in the paper, the trio of stars were discovered using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, with help from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. That’s a whole lot of cosmic gazing power at work, and what the researchers spotted was evidence of a three-star system tearing apart a disc of dust and material that would normally go on to form planets and moons.

Typically, when a star forms it draws in material nearby — or sometimes that material is already waiting in orbit around the star, depending on where it formed. Over time, the material settles into a disc-like shape where matter bunches up into larger and larger spheres. Those orbs crash into each other sometimes, while other smaller chunks form moons that end up trapped in orbit around larger bodies. It’s a delicate dance, but when you add two more stars to the mix, things get really wild.

In this case, the disc itself has a ton of material ready for planet-making. The researchers believe there’s as much as 30 Earth-masses of dust and debris there, swirling around the trio of stars as the stars themselves twist and turn around each other.

But what has unsettled the dust disc? Is it simply the stars themselves or is there a massive planet lurking there, throwing things off? That’s what reachers still don’t know. Simulations suggest that it’s possible that the orbits of the stars around one another would be enough to throw the dust into the chaos they are observing, while other researchers argue that a planet must be responsible for the dust ring’s destruction.

Whatever is actually going on within the three-star system, it’s unlike anything astronomers have been able to observe before. If there really is a planet whipping around this collection of chaotic stars, I bet the view from its surface would be something special.

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