If three's a crowd, a new planet recently discovered orbiting a sunlike star is really cluttering up its neighborhood.
The new planet is the fourth Jupiter-like world to be found around the young star HR 8799, astronomers announced today. The same team had previously found the other three planets in 2008, when they took a direct picture of the star system.
Of the more than 500 planets discovered to date outside our solar system, most have been found via indirect methods, such as looking for planets' gravitational tugs on their host stars or for dips in starlight when planets pass in front of their hosts.
The new planet was also found in a direct image of the HR 8799 system. But based on the masses of the planets and their distances from the star, the fourth world challenges current theories of planet formation, according to the study authors.
"This is the first multiplanet system directly imaged so far, so it's quite a feat," said lead study author Christian Marois, an astronomer at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Canada.
"But we are now stuck with four planets [and] we cannot explain their formation and their current locations by any of our models."
Fourth Planet Too Close to Its Parent?
The previously known planets around HR 8799 are about five, seven, and ten times Jupiter's mass. They orbit between 2.2 billion miles (3.5 billion kilometers) from the star—roughly the same as Neptune's distance from the sun—and 6.3 billion miles (10.1 billion kilometers), or almost twice Pluto's distance.
The most distant planet circles just inside a dusty disk similar to that produced by the solar system's Kuiper belt, a region of small, icy bodies that includes Pluto.
The whole HR 8799 system is estimated to be no more than 60 million years old, so the planets are still glowing with heat from their formation. This heat signature is what betrayed the planets' positions in the previous infrared images of the star.
Astronomers found the fourth planet using the Keck II telescope on the peak of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The instrument is equipped with a special near-infrared imager and adaptive optics to eliminate the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere.