A Family of Giants
First System of Multiple Planets Found around a Sun-like
Astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, MA, and the High Altitude Observatory (HAO) in Boulder, CO have independently found the two outer planets around Upsilon Andromedae. This team has been studying the star for more than four years at the Smithsonian's Whipple Observatory near Tucson, AZ.
Right: Diagram of the newly-discovered planetary system, with planets labeled "b," "c," and "d." The size of the red dot is related to the size of the planet. For comparison, the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are shown as dotted circles. One AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun, approximately 93,000,000 miles (149,000,000 km.) More information
This first planetary system, found from a survey of 107 stars,
offers the first suggestion that planetary systems like our own
are abundant in our Milky Way Galaxy, which contains approximately
200 billion stars. SFSU researcher Debra Fischer said, "It
implies that planets can form more easily than we ever imagined,
and that our Milky Way is teeming with planetary systems."
Upsilon Andromedae is a bright star that is visible to the naked eye from the Northern Hemisphere, starting roughly in June. It is located about 44 light-years from Earth, and is roughly 3 billion years old, about two-thirds the age of the Sun.
The innermost (and previously known) of the three planets contains at least three-quarters of the mass of Jupiter and orbits only 0.06 AU (8.9 million km) from the star. (One AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun, approximately 93,000,000 miles or 149,000,000 km.) It traverses a circular orbit every 4.6 days. The middle planet contains at least twice the mass of Jupiter and takes 242 days to orbit the star once. It resides approximately 0.83 AU from the star, similar to the orbital distance of Venus. The outermost planet has a mass of at least four Jupiters, and completes one orbit every 3.5 to 4 years, placing it 2.5 AU from the star. The two outer planets are both new discoveries and have elliptical orbits, a characteristic of the nine other extrasolar planets in distant orbits around their stars.
No current theory predicted that so many giant worlds would form around a star. "I am mystified at how such a system of Jupiter-like planets might have been created," said Marcy.
"This will shake up the theory of planet formation," Robert Noyes, a professor of astronomy at Harvard-Smithsonian CfA and a member of the CfA-HAO team said. "A nagging question was whether the massive bodies orbiting in apparent isolation around stars really are planets, but now that we see three around the same star, it is hard to imagine anything else."
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The discovery of this multiple planet system suggests a new paradigm for planet formation where many small planets known as 'planetesimals' might develop in the disk of matter surrounding a star. Those planets that grow fastest would engage in a gravitational "tug of war" that weeds out some of the smaller worlds and determines which planets ultimately remain in orbit. "The Upsilon Andromedae system suggests that gravitational interactions between Jupiter-mass planets can play a powerful role in sculpting solar systems," said Butler.
If these Jupiter-mass planets are like our own Jupiter, they would not be expected to have solid Earth-like surfaces. However these observations cannot rule-out Earth-sized planets, as their signature would be too weak to detect with current instrumentation.
Right: Family Portraits of other
possible solar systems, along with our own, courtesy of Astronomy
Picture of the Day. The figure shows the sizes and planet-star
separations for our own solar system, and the systems thought
to be around stars 51 Peg, 70 Vir, and 47 UMa, each of which
are normal "main sequence" stars like our Sun. More information
"Evidence for Multiple Companions to Upsilon Andromedae" Submitted to The Astrophysical Journal
The Upsilon Andromedae Planetary System Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
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