December 5, 2013
Our Sister Solar System
I’ve always loved stargazing. Even as a kid, I would find myself staring up at the sky on clear nights, trying to grapple with the sheer scope and majesty of the starscape. My friends and I would sometimes sleep outside during the summer, often spending hours doing little else. We invented entire galaxies in our heads — galaxies that we told ourselves might be up there, somewhere. It was awe-inspiring, fascinating, and in some senses absolutely terrifying. We strive to know what else is out there while we spin around on our tiny little rock, trying to get even the smallest glimpse of a mammoth we’ll never fully understand. A group of astronomers at the Institute of Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Center recently expanded this peek, and it’s an exceptionally intriguing one at that.
Data from the Kepler Space Telescope recently revealed the existence of a distant solar system arranged very much like our own. Dubbed KOI-351, this solar system has been the focus of study since three of the seven planets were detected earlier this year. It is considerably more compact, boasting seven planets within a single astronomical unit (the distance from the earth to the sun — about 93 million miles), it begins with smaller rocky planets near the sun with gas giants orbiting out on the fringes. This might not seem impressive at first glance, but according to astronomer Dr. Juan Cabrera, such similarities among solar systems are rare, making such a serendipitous analogue practically unheard of. The team is looking to receive funding for a mission that would allow them to study the solar system in greater detail, including specific mass and radius measurements for each of the bodies, as well as a closer look at what the planets themselves are made of. It’s possible that the similarities could run even deeper than just planet orientation, which could have incredible implications for astronomers looking for clues regarding our own solar system — and beyond it.
The team has already been looking into other data, such as the widely varying orbital periods, to predict other factors that might have yet to be discovered. According to the team’s calculations, there may be as many as four more planets orbiting even closer to KOI-351’s nucleus, completing a full solar orbit in 7, 9, 92, and 125 days respectively. Without further inspection, there is no way to prove this with absolute certainty, but the peripheral data seems to suggest that this super-compact solar system holds plenty more surprises. Hopefully Mission PLATO will be able to raise the funds necessary to embark on such an endeavor, especially since the sun dashed my earlier hopes for watching comet ISON.
Regardless, the mere presence of such a solar system is enough to cause excitement, even if all we can do right now is speculate. Though we’ll likely never understand the galaxy in its full majesty, it’s exciting to take a step closer.
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