Rare system of five stars discovered

Jul 23, 2015

by Paul Rincon

Astronomers have discovered a very rare system of five connected stars.

The quintuplet consists of a pair of closely linked stars – binaries – one of which has a lone companion; it is the first known system of its kind.

The pair of stars orbit around a mutual centre of gravity, but are separated by more than the distance of Pluto’s orbit around the Sun.

The findings have been presented at the UK National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno.

The unusual system lies 250 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. It was discovered in data gathered by the SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) project.

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8 comments on “Rare system of five stars discovered

  • I once read a SciFi novel called Helliconia where the orbiting planet had an highly elliptical orbit with a period measured in thousands of years. Summers were extremely long and hot that wiped out most of the population. Those that survived till the next spring in a few thousand years would find ruins of previous civilizations.

    In this system, if I understand it correctly, two binary systems are now interacting with a third star, all with a joint centre of gravity. If all of the stars have planets, I wonder what it would be like on the surface, looking up. Huge variations in orbits as various gravitational forces interacted and slung the planets around. Suns whizzing by. Very little night time. It would be one hell of a roller coaster. Might make a good novel.

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  • Meanwhile nearer to home:


    .The proximity of the alpha Centauri star system – just 4 light years away – makes this an exciting first destination for robotic space craft venturing outside the solar system. The “α Cen” system is comprised of three stars that are gravitationally bound. All are just a bit older than the Sun with a rich chemical composition that is known to be favorable for the formation of planets. Like all multiple star systems, the α Cen star system is hierarchical. There are two central stars, α Cen A and B, that orbit each other once every 80 years. These two stars are similar in mass to the Sun and very bright. The third star, “Proxima” is about half of the mass of the Sun and is so far from α Cen A and B that the estimated orbital period of Proxima around A and B is hundreds of thousands of years.

    In December 2012, the Geneva team surprised us by announcing the detection of a 1-Earthmass planet in a scorching 3.24-day orbit around α Cen B using the HARPS spectrometer. We examined our data from 2012 and did not see the 3.24-day signal. However, the weak signal was a challenging detection and the Geneva team had five times more data than we had collected. We decided to redouble our efforts.

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