Scientists have discovered a solar system similar to ours that contains scaled-down versions of Saturn and Jupiter. This finding suggests that our galaxy hosts many star systems like our own.
Click on image for full size
Courtesy of KASI - CBNU - ARCSEC (KASI is the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, CBNU is the Chungbuk National University, and ARCSEC is Astrophysical Research Center for the Structure and Evolution of the Cosmos.)

A Newly Discovered Solar System Contains Scaled-Down Versions of Saturn and Jupiter
News story originally written on February 14, 2008

A team of international astronomers reports in the Feb. 15 issue of Science the discovery of a solar system nearly 5,000 light years away containing scaled-down versions of Jupiter and Saturn. Their findings suggest that our galaxy could conceivably contain many star systems similar to our own. The National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored the research.

"NSF is delighted to have played a role in enabling such an exciting discovery," said Michael Briley, a program manager in NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences. "One of the outstanding questions has been whether or not planetary systems like ours are common, and it appears they may well be."

The new solar system appears to be a smaller analog of our own. One of its planets has 70 percent of Jupiter's mass and another has 90 percent of Saturn's mass. The sun they orbit has about 50 percent the mass of the sun. Although the star is much dimmer than our sun, temperatures at both planets are likely to be similar to that of Jupiter and Saturn because they are closer to their star.

"The fascinating part is that if we 'scale' everything to the mass and brightness of the parent star, the masses of these planets relative to their star, and the amount of sunlight they receive, [the planets] are close to our own Jupiter and Saturn," said lead author Scott Gaudi, assistant professor of astronomy at Ohio State University. "So what we've found is a solar system analog, or a 'scaled solar system.'"

The two planets were revealed when the star they orbit crossed in front of a more distant star being observed from Earth. For a two-week period from late March through early April of 2006, the nearer star magnified the light shining from the farther star. The phenomenon is called gravitational microlensing -- in this case, the light from the more distant star was magnified 500 times.

The gravitational microlensing technique is based on a concept first discussed by Albert Einstein in the early 20th century. When astronomers observe a star, the light waves generally travel straight from the star to the telescope; however, if another star passes in between, even if great distances separate the two, the gravity of the nearer object acts like a lens and magnifies the incoming light. Telescopes cannot resolve the details of the magnified image, but they do notice a peak in light intensity--and when a planet is present around the closer star, the planet's gravity adds a small peak of its own. Astronomers can use this occurrence to determine how large the planet is and how far away it is from its star.

"This is the first case in which a Jupiter-mass planet was detected [where] we had significant sensitivity to additional planets," Gaudi said. "You could call it luck, but I think it might just mean that these systems are common throughout our galaxy."

Text above is courtesy of the National Science Foundation

Last modified March 13, 2008 by Becca Hatheway.

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

What is mass?

Would it be more difficult to pull an elephant or a mouse? If you pulled each animal with the same amount of force, the elephant would respond less to pulling, even if he didnít pull back at all. Thatís...more

The Solar System

The solar system is made up of the Sun, // Call the planets count function defined in the document head print_planet_count('planets'); planets and // Call the planets count function defined in the document...more

Triggers of Volcanic Eruptions in Oregon's Mount Hood Investigated

A new study has found that a mixing of two different types of magma is the key to the historic eruptions of Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest mountain, and that eruptions often happen in a relatively short...more

Oldest Earth Mantle Reservoir Discovered

Researchers have found a primitive Earth mantle reservoir on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Geologist Matthew Jackson and his colleagues from a multi-institution collaboration report the finding--the...more

Itís Not Your Fault Ė A Typical Fault, Geologically Speaking, That Is

Some geologic faults that appear strong and stable, slip and slide like weak faults. Now an international team of researchers has laboratory evidence showing why some faults that 'should not' slip are...more

Extended Period of Lower Solar Activity Linked to Changes in Sun's Conveyor Belt

A new analysis of the unusually long solar cycle that ended in 2008 suggests that one reason for the long cycle could be a stretching of the sun's conveyor belt, a current of plasma that circulates between...more

Growth Spurt in Tree Rings Prompts Questions About Climate Change

Anyone who has ever cut down a tree is familiar with the rings radiating out from the center of a tree trunk marking the tree's age. Careful study of tree rings can offer much more: a rich record of history...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA