Scientists may have found the first known planet to orbit three stars

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Astronomers have discovered several planets orbiting two stars at once, called circumbinary planets. Now, they might have found the first planet orbiting three.

“Circumtriple” planet would show planets can form in unusual places.

GW Orionis, a triple star system with a peculiar inner regionESO; L. CALÇADA/EXETER; KRAUS ET AL.

Astronomers have discovered several planets orbiting two stars at once, called circumbinary planets. And now they might have found the first planet orbiting threeThe New York Times reports. A star system 1300 light-years from Earth called GW Ori has two stars closely orbiting one another with a third star farther out that circles them, and a huge disk of dust that surrounds all three (artist’s impression, above left). That dusty disk is split into three rings, with a large gap between the inner ring and the other two.

ALMA, in which ESO is a partner, and the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope have imaged GW Orionis, a triple star system with a peculiar inner region. The new observations revealed that this object has a warped planet-forming disc with a misaligned ring. In particular, the SPHERE image (right panel) allowed astronomers to see, for the first time, the shadow that this ring casts on the rest of the disc. This helped them figure out the 3D shape of the ring and the overall disc. The left panel shows an artistic impression of the inner region of the disc, including the ring, which is based on the 3D shape reconstructed by the team.

Scientists have debated whether this gap in the ring is a symptom of gravitational torque caused by the three stars, or is instead evidence of the first known “circumtriple” planet carving out its orbit. New modeling points to a massive planet—or even multiple planets—as the best way to explain that gap, scientists report in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. If confirmed, this could strengthen the idea that planets form more commonly throughout the universe than thought—even in particularly strange systems.

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