Two galaxies have a right-angled planetary system – where the closest planet is six times the size of Jupiter – revealing what astronomers have described as a sort of inverted Lego Star Wars. The binary system consists of twin spiral arms of galaxy Ophiuchus, according to a recent study, and about 95 percent of stars within its 20,000 light-years are right-angled.
The only other recent discovery of right-angled planetary systems was from 1999.
On the plus side, right-angled solar systems are found in the Milky Way about once every one million years, said Matt Waddell, lead author of the recent study and an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Astronomy in Seattle.
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Left-angled systems – where the planet isn’t right-angled – are also found less frequently, at about once every 1 million years.
An advantage of right-angled systems is that they can be seen from Earth, but also, “We also think these right-angled systems may be more likely to have interesting planets,” Waddell said. Right-angled systems sometimes have a rocky planet like Mars, but at least occasionally a moon orbits the planet, and sometimes the planet and a “gas giant” planet are of the same size, as was the case in the recent discovery.
Additionally, scientists aren’t sure why some right-angled systems have a planet where the star is more massive than Earth’s – because the dynamics between the planets are more complex, so it’s been challenging to find cases where planets like Jupiter or Saturn have a giant companion.
“It is not clear if other systems with right-angled planets lack planets or if they cannot be seen – this is one of the exciting things that we see is how difficult it is to find planets in close-oriented systems,” Waddell said.
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In 2007, Waddell and his colleagues confirmed the existence of a right-angled solar system – the closest system known – with the planet HD 42069b. A 2012 study confirmed another right-angled system, the only other known right-angled system discovered in the past 25 years.
The theory that describes how right-angled systems form – right-handed stars in other systems pair up with left-handed planets – is being strongly tested by the new finding, as well as other, similar observations, the authors wrote in the Journal of Astrophysics.
But right-angled systems sometimes have odd statistics in their orbits. For example, some right-angled systems have massive planets on binary orbits, and some have a much smaller planet on a single orbit, much closer than Mercury’s orbital distance from Earth.
Despite the findings, right-angled systems have gotten little attention from astronomers.
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“For a long time, astronomers have been saying right-angled systems are pretty exciting but that there were relatively few of them,” said Amy Sederquist, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis and another author of the study. “It has been really popular in science fiction movies like ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Jupiter Ascending’ and lately, we’ve seen some amazing right-angled planetary systems. But right-angled systems only get noticed when we find them,” she said.
This story was provided by Discovery News.