Exoplanets—planets outside our solar system that orbit distant stars—are notoriously difficult to capture in images. Scientists have identified thousands of them, but usually through indirect techniques, such as measuring the change in starlight as a planet moves in front of its star. As Joseph Stromberg reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2014, astronomers almost never get the chance to see an exoplanet through a telescope.
That makes this newly released image from the European Southern Observatory all the more exciting, researchers say in a statement. Scientists at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile’s Atacama desert captured this image of TYC 8998-760-1, a star 300 light years away that resembles our own sun.
Orbiting the star are not one, but two giant gas exoplanets, making this the first image of its kind, the ESO says. “Images of systems with multiple exoplanets are extremely rare, and—until now—astronomers had never directly observed more than one planet orbiting a star similar to the [s]un,” the ESO writes in a statement.
Researchers named the bigger exoplanet, visible as the bright dot near the center of the image, TYC 8998-760-1 b. The smaller and further exoplanet, in the lower righthand corner, has been dubbed TYC 8998-760-1 c, reports Michelle Starr for Science Alert. Both planets stand out for their massive size: one has 6 times more mass than Jupiter and the other hase 14 times more mass than Jupiter, reports Ashley Strickland for CNN.
Scientists used the VLT’s Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE) to create this image, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. The device functions “like a hand blocking the Sun,” Dvorsky writes, to block out the bright light of the star and allow astronomers to see exoplanets orbiting nearby.
“Even though astronomers have indirectly detected thousands of planets in our galaxy, only a tiny fraction of these exoplanets have been directly imaged,” says Matthew Kenworthy, a researcher at Leiden University, in an ESO statement. He and lead author Alexander Bohn, also of Leiden University, published a paper with the image last week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“Direct observations are important in the search for environments that can support life,” adds Kenworthy.
At just 17 million years old, TYC 8998-760-1 is still quite young for a star, per CNN. The star resembles a “baby version of our own sun,” according to a NASA statement. (Our sun is about 4.6 billion years old.)
Bohn says in a statement that scientists hope to study this sun in the future with the ESO’s planned Extremely Large Telescope to learn more about the history of our own solar system.
As Dvorsky reports, astronomers have yet to learn exactly how large planets form. One theory has proposed that large planets are formed close to their stars, and then slowly migrate outwards. Further study of these newly imaged exoplanets and their analogous sun could help us understand how planets like Jupiter and Saturn formed.
“The possibility that future instruments, such as those available on the [ESO Extremely Large Telescope], will be able to detect even lower-mass planets around this star marks an important milestone in understanding multi-planet systems, with potential implications for the history of our own Solar System,” says Bohn.