320 Light-Years Away, Scientists Spot Something Strangely Familiar In A Nearby Planetary System
The standard features of a planetary system include two things that we know of: 1. A host star, and 2. Planets. That's it. The barrier for entry is pretty low, with room for infinite variations and possibilities. This makes it all the more curious that astronomers have discovered a distant system with a structure that looks an awful lot like… Our own.
According to Science Alert, this is the first time – ever – that scientists have observed rocky rings orbiting a star, much like our own solar system's Kuiper Belt or asteroid belt.
Star HD 141569A is part of a trinary or triple-star system located in the constellation Libra. It has long been a candidate for having a circumstellar disc (which is a cloud of dust and gas swirling around a star), and two denser rings within this disc.
It wasn't until astronomers applied a technique called polarimetry (which measures electromagnetic waves) that these discs came into sharper focus, along with a "spiral arm," according to the paper.
The space between the two rocky rings was caused by a planet forming that swept up all the dust and debris with it to clear a path, while the "arm" seems to indicate that a second planet roughly the size of Jupiter has formed elsewhere.
The asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt are rings of rocky debris and materials (like asteroids); the Kuiper Belt lies beyond Neptune and is still shrouded in mystery – the New Horizons probe became the first mission to visit a Kuiper Belt object on January 1, 2019.
While this may seem like a fairly basic observation at first glance, it provides more insight into how planets and planetary systems form and what "average" might really look like. Until now, we only had our own solar system as an example. This opens the door to a deeper understanding that will inform future research in the quest to find systems – and maybe even planets – that look like home.
A paper detailing this research is available at Cornell University's arXiv, which is an open online resource for scientific papers and research pending peer review. The paper has also recently been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal, which is peer-reviewed.