Astronomers discover large exo-solar system

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Artist's conception of a typical planetary system.
Image: NASA.

Astronomers have discovered a planetary system that could contain between five and seven planets, located about 127 light-years from Earth.

Only fifteen planetary systems are known to contain more than three planets. The newly discovered system is centered around star HD 10180, whose properties may be similar to those of our own Sun. The researchers who made the discovery say that the system is arranged in a more compact way than our own; it is believed that the year of one of the inner planets could be equal to as little as just over one Earth day.

It is believed that up to seven planets may be present in this system; two, however, are subject to ambiguity. One of these is believed to have a mass that may be relatively close to Earth's. This planet, if confirmed, may prove to be the smallest world yet discovered outside our solar system.

This system, however, is not the first to be discovered outside our solar system. Astronomers have been spotting these systems for several years. Christophe Lovis, lead researcher on the project, shares his thoughts about the discovery: "This also highlights the fact that we are now entering a new era in exoplanet research - the study of complex planetary systems and not just of individual planets."

Martin Dominik, an astronomer from the University of St. Andrews, warns against describing the system as the "richest yet discovered," as it is unclear whether other systems with more planets have been discovered in the past. Dominik elaborates: "Like most discoveries in science, the findings come with more questions than answers; but in my opinion, this is what really advances a field."