Scientists capture first image of two exoplanets orbiting a Sun-like star


(CNN) — About 300 light-years away from us, two giant exoplanets are orbiting a young Sun-like star.

Image taken by the SPHERE instrument of the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The Sun-like star can be seen in the upper left corner and the exoplanets are the two bright spots.

The proof is in this photo: scientists captured the first image direct from this system.

By observing this system, centered around a star similar to ours known as TYC 8998-760-1, astronomers can gain a better understanding of how the planets of our Solar System formed and how they evolved around the Sun.

The difference is that this young Sun is at a much earlier stage in its evolution, the researchers said.

The star itself is only 17 million years old, which is considered young in astronomical terms. It can be seen in the constellation Musca in the southern sky. Researchers refer to it as a very young version of our Sun, which is 4.6 billion years old.

“Although astronomers have indirectly detected thousands of planets in our galaxy, only a small fraction of those exoplanets have been directly photographed,” said Matthew Kenworthy, co-author of the study and associate professor at Leiden University, in a statement.

“Direct observations are important in finding environments that can sustain life,” he explained.

Astronomers used the Very Large Telescope at the Observatory European of the South in Chile. Research and image were published on Wednesday in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The SPHERE instrument on the telescope can take images of exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system, in optical and near-infrared light.

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In May, astronomers shared an image of a planetary system being born that was captured by this instrument.

These direct images of exoplanets allow scientists a detailed look at planetary systems outside of ours.

A similar environment

The two gas giant exoplanets were first found orbiting the young Sun-like star earlier this year. They are both much farther from their host star than the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn from our Sun.

Future observations will provide more information about the system, including where the planets formed and whether they migrated after they formed, as well as an understanding of how they interact with each other.

They are respectively 160 and 320 times apart from Earth to the Sun, while Jupiter and Saturn are approximately five and 10 times apart between our planet and the Sun.

These two exoplanets are also much heavier. The inner planet is 14 times the mass of Jupiter, and the outer planet is six times the mass of Jupiter. For reference to scale, Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System.

Multiple images were captured at different times to show the planets and isolate them from the stars in the background. The SPHERE instrument can block bright light from stars, allowing images of planets to be obtained, which are much fainter. Young planets shine brighter than older planets, like those in our solar system, in infrared light.

“The possibility that future instruments, such as those available in the Extremely Large Telescope, can detect even lower-mass planets around this star marks an important milestone in understanding the systems of multiple planets, with possible implications for the history of our planet. Solar System itself, ”said Alexander Bohn, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in a statement.

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The discovery was part of a larger investigation into exoplanets around Sun-like stars. Bohn said the entire study has 70 similar targets, and they have just completed about 20% of their observations.

“Perhaps there are even more planetary systems that we can find around stars that are very similar to our Sun, only much younger,” Bohn said.

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