Researchers believe they may have discovered the very first instance of a planet orbiting three stars at once, although they still haven’t seen it yet.
Around 1,300 light-years away from Earth, there is a star system with three stars gravitationally bound to each other. According to a new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, some abnormalities in the dust rings around the stars suggest that there are hidden planets orbiting these three stars.
Earth’s solar system consists of planets orbiting a single, central star, but this is actually more unusual than multi-star systems. Around half of all star systems feature two stars — called a “binary pair” — and around one in five star systems feature three or more stars.
Until now, scientists have yet to discover a planet in a circumtriple orbit around three stars before.
“It’s really exciting because it makes the theory of planet formation really robust,” Jeremy Smallwood, lead author of the paper, said in a press release. “It could mean that planet formation is much more active than we thought, which is pretty cool.”
GW Orionis, or GW Ori is the name of the triple-star system that researchers looked at in this new study, using observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope.
While the telescope didn’t capture direct evidence of a planet, researchers believe that the unusual physical characteristics of the star system could only be explained by the presence of one or more massive hidden planets in orbit around all three stars.
In GW Ori, the first two stars are the same distance away from each other as the Earth is to the Sun, known as an astronomical unit (au). The third star is around eight au away from the first two.
The interesting thing about the star system is the discs of dust and gas swirling around the stars, containing the building blocks for planet creation. Researchers observed three dust rings that were misaligned with each other, and that there was also a large break or gap in the dust rings at around 100 au.
What could’ve caused this? Researchers set out to discover the cause.
One theory as to what formed these dust rings was that the torque from the three stars could be separating the disc of gas around the stars into these distinct layers. When simulated, the pressure of these stars could warp, but could not break the disc in the way researchers were observing in GW Ori.
Researchers compared the triple-star system to a binary star system and found they could model the circumtriple disc as a circumbinary disc, which allowed them to run more simulations to test what could break the disc.
Researchers then ran through what would happen in this star system if a planet was orbiting the three stars.
“The results of the simulations […] shows that if a planet forms in a misaligned disc and is massive enough to carve a gap, it can lead to an effectively broken disc,” the study stated.
They also found that if a planet formed in a misaligned disc, it would grow in size every time its orbit brought it back in sync with the disc again, and that it could carve multiple gaps in the disc.
Researchers estimate that the most likely planet to create the structures we see around this star system would be one or more large, Jupiter-style gas giants, although they add that under certain scenarios, a low-mass planet would also be capable of creating a gap in the dust rings if it was orbiting more consistently along the dust ring.
Despite the evidence pointing towards the first planet — or planets — to be found orbiting three stars at once, it may be hard to prove it definitively.
“If misaligned planets are present around the hierarchical triple-star system, they would be difficult to detect,” the study stated.
One of the most common methods to detect planets in distant star systems is the transit method, in which we record the level of light coming from a star and can detect a planet passing in front of the planet by the dimming of the light that occurs when the planet is in front of the star. It’s easier to detect planets that orbit on a consistent plane, which may not be the case with GW Ori’s potential planets.
Still, researchers will be on the lookout for more data using ALMA, hoping to find direct evidence of the first case of a circumtriple orbit.
According to Space Adventures President Tom Shelley, a seat on the Russia spacecraft is in the range of $50 million to $60 million
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In February 2020, the Virginia-based space tourism company Space Adventures announced a contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX for a joint project, mission Crew Dragon, that would send four space tourists on a mission to a ‘relatively high Earth orbit’.
With experience in flying private individuals to the International Space Station (ISS), the company announced that its planned mission, scheduled for late 2021 to early 2022, would set a new “world altitude record for private citizen spaceflight” by flying at least twice as high as the station.
Earlier this month during a visit to Moscow, however, Space Adventures President Tom Shelley told AFP “ultimately our reservation with SpaceX expired and that’s not a mission that we are going to be executing in the immediate future.”
In an interview with Space News confirming the statement, company spokesperson Stacey Tearne said “the mission was marketed to a large number of our prospective customers, but ultimately the mix of price, timing and experience wasn’t right at that particular time.”
Meanwhile, Space Adventures was working on another project with Russian space agency Roscosmos. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, known for buying a SpaceX Starship flight around the moon in 2023, will be the first to travel to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, set to launch on December 8 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
According to Shelley, a seat on the Russia spacecraft is said to cost in the range of $50 million to $60 million.
The race to space is not a thing of the past. This now privatized business has created a competitive industry between multi-billion dollar companies and countries. Although Moscow and Washington’s relationship has been severed over a number of political issues, Shelley says that space was an exception.
“Cooperation in space in particular seems to somewhat transcend the political difficulties that exist between the United States and Russia,” he said.
Conflicting sentiments are abound concerning space tourism and exploration.
Days after Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, claimed to the BBC that “great brains and minds should be trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live,” director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs Simonetta Di Pippo suggests differently.
While visiting Dubai’s Expo 2020, Di Pippo told The National that “space tourism has a lot of positives and can help inspire humanity to protect their planet. It’s really the attempt of bringing space closer to humanity and humanity closer to space.”
Glass barriers will be installed between the desks of Lambton County councillors in the council chambers in Wyoming ahead of January when the council is expected to begin meeting again in person.
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Glass barriers will be installed between the desks of Lambton County councillors in the council chambers in Wyoming ahead of January, when in-person meetings are expected to resume.
The barriers are expected to cost $12,000 but will free county councillors from having to wear face masks during the meetings.
“It maybe is a little bit of overkill” but “we want to make sure all of council is comfortable and feeling secure,” said Warwick Township Mayor Jackie Rombouts, chairperson of the county council committee reviewing a staff report that recently outlined steps being taken for the resumption of in-person meetings.
The report noted the barriers are required under regulations, given the layout of the council chambers where members sit close together.
“If people are going to be in close proximity to each other without a mask, current regulations would require that impermeable partition,” said Stephane Thiffeault, the county’s general manager of corporate services.
County council and its committees have been meeting online since the pandemic began but decided in September to plan for a return to in-person meetings in January, subject to changes in public-health guidelines.
Lambton Shores Mayor Bill Weber noted everyone attending in-person meetings will be vaccinated.
When “you can fill a stadium with people cheering on a team, it seems silly that 17 of us need to have partitions between us,” he said.
County council voted recently to require that councillors show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, or a recent test, to attend in-person meetings when they resume. Councillors can also continuing attending meetings “virtually.”
County councillors will also be required to “self-screen” for COVID-19 symptoms before attending meetings and use hand sanitizer on the way into council chambers. They will be required to wear a mask and maintain social distances when not seated at their desk.
A limited number of county staff will attend the meetings while others will participate virtually, the report said.
Limited space will be available in the gallery for the public, who will be required to sign in. A total of 38 members of the public can be accommodated in the gallery, allowing for social distancing, the report said.
Members of the public will also be able to watch from a committee room overlooking the chambers, and the meetings will continue to broadcast online for the public.
Astronomers have found hints of what could be the first planet ever to be discovered outside our galaxy.
Nearly 5,000 “exoplanets” – worlds orbiting stars beyond our Sun – have been found so far, but all of these have been located within the Milky Way galaxy.
The possible planet signal discovered by Nasa’s Chandra X-Ray Telescope is in the Messier 51 galaxy.
This is located some 28 million light-years away from the Milky Way.
This new result is based on transits, where the passage of a planet in front of a star blocks some of the star’s light and yields a characteristic dip in brightness that can be detected by telescopes.
This general technique has already been used to find thousands of exoplanets.
Dr Rosanne Di Stefano and colleagues searched for dips in the brightness of X-rays received from a type of object known as an X-ray bright binary.
These objects typically contain a neutron star or black hole pulling in gas from a closely orbiting companion star. The material near the neutron star or black hole becomes superheated and glows at X-ray wavelengths.
Because the region producing bright X-rays is small, a planet passing in front of it could block most or all of the X-rays, making the transit easier to spot.
The team members used this technique to detect the exoplanet candidate in a binary system called M51-ULS-1.
“The method we developed and employed is the only presently implementable method to discover planetary systems in other galaxies,” Dr Di Stefano, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, US, told BBC News.
“It is a unique method, uniquely well-suited to finding planets around X-ray binaries at any distance from which we can measure a light curve.”
This binary contains a black hole or neutron star orbiting a companion star with a mass about 20 times that of the Sun. A neutron star is the collapsed core of what had once been a massive star.
The transit lasted about three hours, during which the X-ray emission decreased to zero. Based on this and other information, the astronomers estimate that the candidate planet would be around the size of Saturn, and orbit the neutron star or black hole at about twice the distance Saturn lies from the Sun.
Dr Di Stefano said the techniques that have been so successful for finding exoplanets in the Milky Way break down when observing other galaxies. This is partly because the great distances involved reduce the amount of light which reaches the telescope and also mean that many objects are crowded into a small space (as viewed from Earth), making it difficult to resolve individual stars.
With X-rays, she said, “there may be only several dozen sources spread out over the entire galaxy, so we can resolve them. In addition, a subset of these are so bright in X-rays that we can measure their light curves.
“Finally, the huge emission of X-rays comes from a small region that can be substantially or (as in our case) totally blocked by a passing planet.”
The researchers freely admit that more data is needed to verify their interpretation.
One challenge is that the planet candidate’s large orbit means it would not cross in front of its binary partner again for about 70 years, quashing any attempts to make a follow-up observation in the near-term.
One other possible explanation that the astronomers considered is that the dimming has been caused by a cloud of gas and dust passing in front of the X-ray source.
However, they think this is unlikely, because the characteristics of the event do not match up with the properties of a gas cloud.
“We know we are making an exciting and bold claim so we expect that other astronomers will look at it very carefully,” said co-author Julia Berndtsson of Princeton University, New Jersey.
“We think we have a strong argument, and this process is how science works.”
Dr Di Stefano said that the new generation of optical and infrared telescopes would not be able to compensate for the problems of crowding and dimness, so observations at X-ray wavelengths would likely remain the primary method for detecting planets in other galaxies.
However, she said a method known as microlensing might also hold promise for identifying extra-galactic planets.
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