Unique six-exoplanet system challenges theories of how planets form

27 Janvier, 2021, 18:28 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Nebula cloud and planet

The galaxy is made up of six exoplanets, five of which revolve around their parent star in a very special rhythm. They orbit around the star in a sequence that repeats itself every few orbits, except for the planet situated nearest to its host star. On closer examination, however, it was found that not entirely correct. TOI-561b is said to be one of the oldest rocky planets.

They also have "resonant" movements, implying that patterns of movement are repeated as they move on the orbit. Io completes four full orbits for every orbit of Ganymede, whilst also completing two full orbits for every orbit of Europa.

Artist's impression of a distant planet orbiting a star in the TOI-178 system.

Since the cosmic dance of these planets has stayed unchanged, the TOI-178 scheme shows minimal disruption.

According to the researchers behind the report, though, the orbital trends that the five exoplanets adopt are even more complicated and the longest one ever found.

To investigate the architecture of the TOI-178 system, Dr. Hara and colleagues analyzed data from ESA's CHEOPS satellite, the ground-based ESPRESSO instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), and the NGTS and SPECULOOS surveys at ESO's Paranal Observatory. How does it work exactly?

As the second planet of the star reaches its 18 orbits, the star's third planet completes nine orbital periods. The fastest (and deepest) planet takes only a few days to orbit its star, while the slowest planet takes about ten times. If we look at the size of the planets, it is surprising that the six planets have dimensions ranging from one to three times the Earth. And this while their masses amount to one and a half to thirty land masses. It is three times larger than the Earth. The finding could force us to revise our ideas of how planets-including those in our own solar system-form.

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The discovery of this echo planetary dance is not only extremely fascinating, but it also provides us with more insight into the history of a particular planetary system. "The tasks of this system are very well organized", says researcher Yann Alibert. "This tells us that the system has evolved peacefully since its inception". Were it to have been significantly disturbed earlier in its life-by a giant impact or the gravitational influence of another system, for example- the fragile configuration of its orbits would have been obliterated.

Another curious aspect of the system is that while the orbits of the exoplanets are neat and well-ordered, their densities are not.

For instance, one of the system's planets is as thick as Earth, while other is fluffier, with nearly half Neptune's density, followed by a planet with a similar density as Neptune. "It is not what we are used to", Hara explained.

"The system therefore turned out to be one that challenges our understanding of the formation and evolution of planetary systems", added astrophysicist Adrien LeleuExternal link of the Center for Space and Habitability, which is run by the University of Bern, the University of Geneva and the National Center of Competence in Research PlanetS. None of the six exoplanets discovered are located in the so-called "habitable zone" (the area around a star where liquid water is possible on a rotating planet). But what could still come.

The team were able to take the resonance of the four planets described above and use it to discover the fifth in the chain, which is the sixth and final planet overall. This powerful telescope is expected to go into operation within this decade. Additionally, astronomers can explore the atmosphere of these hypothetical planets.

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