Watch Four Planets Orbit One Star 130 Light Years Away

Watch Four Planets Orbit One Star 130 Light Years Away
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Four exoplanets, each larger than Jupiter, orbit HR8799, represented by the yellow star shape in the center.
Image: Gizmodo/Jason Wang/Northwestern University

Astronomical events occur on timescales that dwarf the human scale—the galaxy changes over millions and billions of years, not decades. But a new timelapse of observations of a distant star system shows its clockwork moving in just 12 years, packed into just a few seconds.

It was a star known as HR8799 the first extrasolar planetary system always to describe directly. Jason Wang, a professor of astrophysics at Northwestern University, recently used a decade of observations of the system to create a five-second animation depicting the motions of the four large planets orbiting the star. Wang and his colleagues collected 12 years of data using the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Images of 4 planets orbiting HR 8799 (12 year gap)

“It’s usually hard to see planets in orbit,” Wang said Press release from Northwest. “For example, it’s not clear whether Jupiter or Mars orbits our Sun because we live in the same system and don’t have a top-down view. Astronomical events either happen too quickly or too slowly to capture on film. But this video shows the planets moving on a human time scale. I hope it allows people to enjoy something beautiful.”

HR8799 is located 130 light years from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. The star is 1.5 times the mass of the Sun and about five times brighter. Four giant planets call the star home, each larger than our own Jupiter. The innermost planet takes about 45 years to complete its orbit, while the outermost planet takes about five centuries. (Neptune, the most distant known planet in our solar system, orbits the Sun every 165 years.)

“Tracing orbital systems over a period of time is not scientifically achievable, but it helps others appreciate what we’re learning,” Wang said. “It can be difficult to explain the nuances of science in words. But showing science in action helps others to understand its importance.”

This animation from Wang is not his first; researcher a similar, shorter animation In 2017, after seven years of observational data. Wang’s animations offer a tangible perspective on planetary motion—a phenomenon we’ve only previously been able to simulate or read about.

Correction: An earlier version of this story’s headline said the system was 130 million light-years away from Earth, when in fact it was 130 light-years away.

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