Astronomers Take First-Ever Image Of A Multi-Planet System Around A Young Sun-like Star

This image shows the star and its two planets, which are visible in the center and just right of center as two bright dots. Other bright dots, which are background stars, are also visible. ESO/Bohn et al

Astronomers have used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) to capture two planets orbiting a young Sun-like star. This is the first image of its kind. All other observations of planets around Sun-like stars have had only one world in them.

The system in question is known as TYC 8998-760-1, located 300 light-years from Earth. It is estimated to be just 17 million years old, a baby compared to the 4.6 billion years of our Sun. As reported in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the two planets are further out than any known world in the solar system at 160 and 320 times respectively the distance the Earth is from the Sun.

The closest is about 14 times the mass of Jupiter (plus or minus three Jupiters) and the furthest is roughly six times the mass of Jupiter. Their orbits are stable, which suggests they likely formed there.

“This discovery is a snapshot of an environment that is very similar to our Solar System, but at a much earlier stage of its evolution,” lead author Alexander Bohn, a graduate researcher at Leiden University, said in a statement.

This image shows the star and its two planets, which are visible as two bright dots identified by arrows. Other bright dots, which are background stars, are visible in the image as well. ESO/Bohn et al.

These observations were far from easy. Even though young planets tend to be warmer than older ones and can be spotted using infrared light, the infrared emission of a star is still overpowering enough that it first has to be blocked in order for planets to be visible. These observations then have to be repeated to confirm the planets are indeed orbiting the star.

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

Current instruments limit how much we can learn about these objects. Next-generation observatories like the James Web Space Telescope or ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) should be able to go deeper, looking for planets closer to their stars and closer in mass to Earth.

“The possibility that future instruments, such as those available on the ELT, 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,” Bohn concluded.

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