Watch four planets orbit a star 130 light years away

Four exoplanets, each larger than Jupiter, orbit HR8799, represented by the yellow star shape in the center.
Picture: Gizmodo/Jason Wang/Northwestern University

Astronomical phenomena tend to occur over time periods that dwarf our human scale – a galaxy changes over millions and billions of years, not decades. But a new timelapse of observations from a distant star system shows its clockwork over just 12 years, in mere seconds.

The star, known as HR8799, was the first extrasolar planetary system never be directly imaged. Recently, Jason Wang, a professor of astrophysics at Northwestern University, used more than a decade of observations of the system to create a five-second animation that depicts the motion of four large planets orbiting the star. Wang and his colleagues collected the 12 years of data using the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Images of 4 planets orbiting HR 8799 (12 year time interval)

“It’s usually hard to see orbiting planets,” Wang said in a northwest press release. “For example, it’s not obvious whether Jupiter or Mars orbit our sun because we live in the same system and don’t have a top-down view. Astronomical events happen too quickly or too slowly to capture on film. But this video shows planets moving on a human scale. I hope this will let people enjoy something wonderful.

HR8799 is located more than 130 light years from Earth, in the constellation Pegasus. The star has 1.5 times the mass of the Sun and is about five times as luminous. Four giant planets inhabit the star, each larger than our own Jupiter. The innermost planet takes about 45 years to orbit, while the outermost planet takes nearly five centuries. (Neptune, the farthest known planet in our solar system, orbits the Sun every 165 years.)

“There’s nothing to be gained scientifically from watching orbiting systems in time-lapse video, but it helps others appreciate what we’re studying,” Wang said. “It can be difficult to explain the nuances of science in words. But showing science in action helps others understand its importance.

This current animation by Wang is not his first; the researcher produced a shorter similar animation in 2017 after seven years of sighting data. Wang’s animations provide a tangible perspective of planetary motion, a phenomenon we may only have been able to simulate or read about before.

Correction: An earlier version of this story’s title stated that the system was 130 million light-years from Earth, when in reality it is 130 light-years away.

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