Science Sunday: Four Stars, One Planet
While the crowd sourcing of science might be a relatively new idea, the rise of amateur astronomers has certainly made the lives of those scouring the skies a little easier. When huge sections of the heavens have to be checked, there are hundreds of people with telescopes ready more than willing to help out, and now volunteer astronomers from planethunters.org have made a significant contribution in the discovery of a very interesting planet.
Yes, along with teams of astronomers from the US and the UK, they found a pretty damn cool planet.
Like most exoplanets discovered by humans, this one’s a gas giant. These are easier to find because their effects on the stars they orbit are easier to spot than smaller, earth-like planets, but this one wasn’t just orbiting one star.
Not only was this planet (named PH1 after the planet hunters, in honor of their contribution) discovered to be orbiting a binary star system, but those stars were discovered to have another pair of stars orbiting them.
Your jaw may be on the floor, your eyebrows may be raised, your fingers may be stroking your chin in wonder. How does this planet stand up to the gravitational forces of four stars in such a small area, you may ask?
Good question, theoretical reader!
The planet is apparently in a stable orbit, despite its hostile environment, according to Dr. Chris Lintott, when speaking to the BBC. Apparently, other planets orbiting binary star systems maintain a stable orbit by forming close to the star. Within close proximity to their stars they find room to orbit without being swallowed up by the massive gravitational influences of the systems they’ve formed around. These planets supposedly form in the very inner parts of protoplanetary discs, explaining their close proximity, and yet this is the first planet to be discovered in a system with four stars.
This discovery’s cool enough on its own, but combined with the fact that it was pushed forward largely by volunteers really adds another layer of awe to this story.
Without the internet, making something like this possible would be a challenge in the least and incredibly implausible at most, but thanks to the ease at which information can be spread and enthusiasm can be collected and shared among like-minded people, crowd sourced science has been made a very real possibility, and with the hunt for exoplanets becoming a massive project, it’s great to be able to rely on a huge group of people who love astronomy but don’t have a position at a university or even any relevant qualifications.
Go citizen science!
[image credits: Universe Today, essex.ac.uk]