Space Sunday: supergiants on camera and more to Mars

Are they stars? No, they’re a pair of exoplanets 310 light years away. Credit: ESO/Bohn et al, 2020

The above picture may not look that spectacular, just a couple of stars against the backdrop of space – exception the two disks it shows are not stars, they are planets – exoplanets, in fact, orbiting a star 310 light years away. As such, it is the first visible light photograph of multiple planets orbiting a Sun-like star taken from Earth.

Called TYC 8998-760-1, the star in question is of the G2V spectral class, and the closest Sun-like star to the solar system. However, whereas the Sun is some 4.6 billion years old, TYC 8998-760-1 is a mere stripling – just 17 million years old. It lies within the southern hemisphere constellation of Musca – a constellation which though small, contains a number of notable stars including Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Zeta Muscae, part of a group of hot blue-white stars that seem to share a common point of origin and motion within the galaxy, HD 100546, a blue-white Herbig Ae/Be star that is surrounded by a complex debris disk containing a large planet or brown dwarf and possible protoplanet, and  Theta Muscae, a triple star system, the brightest member of which is a Wolf–Rayet star.

The image was taken by the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE). This instrument utilises a coronagraph to block out much of the light from a star, allowing the light reflected by any planetary bodies to be visible.

TYC 8998-760-1 is an interesting planetary system for a number of reasons. Given the relative youth of the parent star, it might be said that the system represents a glimpse of the early formation of the solar system. However, it is on a scale far vaster than our own. Both of the planets are gas supergiants, the innermost, called TYC 8998-760-1 b, being some 14 times the mass of Jupiter, whilst the outermost, TYC 8998-760-1 c, is around 6 times Jupiter’s mass. Both also orbit their parent at incredible distances in comparison to the planets of our own system:  TYC 8998-760-1 b averages 162 AU (1 AU being the average distance the Earth is from the Sun), and TYC 8998-760-1 c averages some 320 AU. By comparison, Neptune, the most distant of our major planets, averages a “mere” 30 AU from the Sun.

The complete image captured by the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, showing the star TYC 8998-760-1 above centre, left, with three additional stars above it and its two supergiant planets below (arrowed). This image marks the first time astronomers have directly observed more than one planet orbiting a star similar to the Sun. Image Credit: ESO/Bohn et al, 2020.

These vast distances make both planets curiosities: exoplanets that are large and orbiting far from their host stars are very difficult to fit into the protoplanetary and accretion disk model(s ) that are generally used to explain planetary formation. Further, both planets appear to occupy relatively stable, circular orbits. Astronomers believe this could indicate that the two planets formed more-or-less where they are now and their near-circular orbits may indicate the presence of a still-to-be discovered third large body orbiting even further from the star (and TYC 8998-760-1 c was unknown prior to SPHERE capturing it) – or that their orbits might indicate their are the result of very specific ejections from an unseen stellar companion to  TYC 8998-760-1.

Further study is required to determine exactly how the planets may have formed, but their presence does raise the questions on whether smaller, rocky planets might orbit closer to the star – possibly within its habitable zone. As it is, SPHERE’s ability to gather data on planets has yielded a lot of information on the two gas giants that will keep astronomers busy. And while this is only the third image of exoplanets currently on record, with the upcoming generation of high-powered Earth and space-based telescopes, that number will increase over the coming decades.

Heavenly Questions En-route to Mars

The Long March 5 carrying China’s Tianwen-1 mission to Mars lifts-off on July 23rd. Credit: CCTV / China National Space Agency

In my previous Space Sunday update I covered the launch of the UAE’s Hope mission to Mars, launched as that article was being written, and the (then) forthcoming launch of China’s ambitious Tianwen-1 (“Quest for Heavenly Truth” or “Questions for Heaven”) orbiter / lander / rover mission.

At that time, it wasn’t clear just when China’s mission would lift-off, but going on past launches of the Long March 5 booster that would be hefting the mission away from Earth have generally been within 6 days of the rocket being delivered to the launch pad, speculation was that the Tianwen-1 launch would come in he week of July 20th through 24th, given its launcher arrived on the pad on July 17th.

A view of the Long March 5 booster ascending to orbit, showing the dual exhaust configuration of its first stage boosters. Credit: CCTV / China National Space Agency

Those speculations proved to be correct, because Long March 5 launch Y4 took to the skies from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, at 04:41 UTC on the Morning of July 23rd (11:41 local time).

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