Scientists at NASA have found a solar system that completely defies our understanding of the universe, where six stars similar to our sun exist in close proximity as three binary systems, orbiting one another in a massive cluster.
While scientists have been aware of the existence of some other sextuplet star systems, the triple-binary arrangement of the new system – dubbed TIC 168789840 – is wholly unique, and challenges researchers’ understandings of how sun-like stars form close to one another at their inception.
“The system exists against the odds,” said Brian Powell, a data scientist at NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center, in an interview with the New York Times.
The scientists learned about the anomalous star system through its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which launched and began scouring outer space after launching in 2018.
The planet-hunting satellite detected starlight located some 1,900 light-years away that was mysteriously brightening and dimming before they discovered the system of binary stars: three distinct stellar couplets that revolved around three separate centers of mass, with the entire trio remaining bound to one another gravitationally and circling a galactic center as one unified star system.
Additionally, what makes this star system distinct from other six-star systems is the fact that the stars pass in front of and behind one another, eclipsing other members of the “stellar dance troupe” in a process that has played out in the sight of the TESS satellite. As NYT notes, this means that “scientists have found a sextuply eclipsing sextuple star system.”
“Just the fact that it exists blows my mind,” said Powell. “I’d love to just be in a spaceship, park next to this thing and see it in person.”
However, beyond the technical constraints of our still-underdeveloped capabilities to travel through space, the conditions in this star system are so fierce that exoplanets simply can’t form. Four of the six sun-like bodies orbit so close to one another that any planet forming near them would be immediately engulfed and annihilated by two of the binaries.
Yet the remaining two stars are at such a distance that it still remains technically possible that some undiscovered worlds could be orbiting them at a safe distance from the other two binary systems, according to research that was recently accepted for publication by The Astronomical Journal.
As co-author and astronomer Tamás Borkovits of the Baja Astronomical Observatory in Hungary notes, the vision of the night sky from these planets would be entirely unlike anything we know here on earth, as one “could see two suns, just like Luke Skywalker on Tatooine,” along with the four other bright stars making their way around the huge sky.
Scientists are still trying to figure out how exactly the sextuple system formed, but there is a suspicion that the first three stars formed in concert before each successive one grew its own binary companion after passing through a dense clump of cosmic gas. This led to disks forming around the original trio of stars before it eventually resulted in the birth of smaller, accompanying stars.
However, the researchers won’t know how exactly this star system formed without finding a similar system to double check.
Either way, the discovery of TIC 168789840 – along with the exploding comets and star-destroying black holes witnessed by the TESS satellite – are just the latest reminders that we still have plenty of science-fiction-like discoveries to make in the final frontier known as space.
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