The discovery is unlike anything astronomers have ever seen before.
Astronomers have discovered some truly bizarre planets in outer space, but a recent finding of the SPHERE, or Spectro-Polarimetric High-Contrast Exoplanet Research Instrument, has baffled even the most seasoned researchers. According to a report from the Washington Post, scientists from the University of Arizona published a paper in the journal Science announcing the discovery of a planet orbiting not two, but three suns.
If you are a Star Wars fan, you will likely recognize this phenomenon from the fictional planet Tatooine. The gas giant HD 131399Ab was directly imaged by the SPHERE instrument, which revealed a number of stunning aspects about the planet. Scientists were particularly amazed to observe how far from its host stars the planet was orbiting – so far that they were surprised that it hadn’t been flung into deep space.
Due to the planet’s extremely long orbital path, the concept of seasons would be very different than here on Earth. Winter can last longer than a human lifetime, and depending on the planet’s position in its orbital path, the surface would see three sunrises and sunsets a day or receive constant sunlight.
This marks the first exoplanet discovered by SPHERE, operated by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. The data collected by the instrument came directly from the planet, and not from changes in the sunlight that would indicate its presence.
The planet is roughly four times the mass of Jupiter, and enjoys a temperature of 580 degrees Celsius. Though this may sound extreme, it’s actually one of the youngest and mildest exoplanets ever imaged by scientists. Researchers believe the world is just 16 million years old, compared to Earth’s 4.5 billion years.
According to the lead author of the study, Daniel Apai of the University of Arizona, “HD 131399Ab is one of the few exoplanets that have been directly imaged, and it’s the first one in such an instering dynamical configuration.”
A press release from the University of Arizona describing the details of the study can be found here.