Astronomers from the University of California in Berkeley have discovered the first solar system other than our own where multiple planets travel in circular orbits around a star.
More than 70 planets have been found outside our solar system, but most travel in tight, erratic orbits around their stars, meaning that their surfaces would be too hot to harbor life as we know it.
However, the two planets around the newly-discovered solar system orbiting star 47 Ursae Majoris travel in nearly circular orbits at a distance that, in our solar system, would place them beyond Mars but within the orbit of Jupiter, where life could be possible. One of the planets is 2 ? times the size of Jupiter, the other is ? as large. The first planet was discovered in 1996 and the second was discovered last week.
?With 47 Ursae Majoris, it?s heartwarming to find a planetary system that finally reminds us of our solar system,? says Geoffrey Marcy, a Berkeley professor of astronomy. Ursa Majoris is part of the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major, constellation and is about 51 light years away from Earth.
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A relatively short distance from Earth, another new solar system has been discovered, in the midst of millions of comets and a haze of gas and dust. Scientists say it gives us a picture of the early years of our own solar system.
The solar system was spotted by the NASA spacecraft called the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE). The satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral on July 24, 1999. It orbits about 471 miles above the Earth and views targets too faint to have been seen before. Its images have revealed a 20-million-year-old star called Beta Pictoris that is surrounded by a 200-billion-mile disk of dust and gas, 58 light years from Earth.
Scientists have determined the age of Beta Pictoris by tracing the motion of the star back through space to the nearest star-forming region, or nebula. These huge masses of gas and dust are the places where stars are born.
Right now the solar system consists of a bright star surrounded by a chaotic mix of gases and particles. Scientists expect that eventually the gases and dust will begin gently sticking together in fluffy clumps, like the layering of snowflakes, says Aki Roberge, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, who played a key role in analyzing Beta Pictoris data.
It?s an extremely chaotic scene with millions of comets plunging into the star and into each other. The larger masses will grow into millions of streaking comets. Many of them will collide, creating tremendous molten heat and even larger masses. The larger these comets get, the more violent the collisions become. As they stick together, planets form over time. That could take millions, if not billions of years to happen. But according to Roberge, ?the building blocks are all there.
?It was always a bit unsatisfying to have [only] one solar system to study,? Roberge says. ?We?ve made a lot of assumptions about what the earlier stages of the solar system are like. Now we can actually see the process happening right in front of us. We have our own solar system as a benchmark.?
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