After six years of painstaking observations, astronomers have identified a distant solar system with at least five Neptune-class worlds orbiting within 130 million miles or so of the parent star--closer than Mars is to the sun. Two other planets are believed to be present, including one just 1.4 times as massive as Earth.
The presumed Earth-size planet orbits a scant 2 million miles from its star, completing a full orbit, or "year," every 1.18 days. If confirmed with additional observations, this hellish world would be the smallest yet discovered, additional proof that Earth-size planets are falling within the reach of current Earth-based instruments.
"We have probably found the system with the most planets known today, coming close to the solar system," Christophe Lovis of the University of Geneva, lead author of a paper reporting the discovery, told CNET in an e-mail exchange. "This means that we are now able to detect very complex systems of low-mass planets, which will help us a lot [in] understanding their diversity. This a step towards answering long-standing questions, such as, how common are habitable planets in the universe?"
As for the presumed Earth-size planet, Lovis said "it is probable that such a low-mass body cannot retain an atmosphere so close to its star. Most likely, this body is like a big melted-lava ball. Hard to imagine, since this is unknown in our solar system."
Over six years, Lovis and his colleagues used a sensitive spectrograph mounted on the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-meter (11.8-foot) telescope at La Silla, Chile, to measure subtle changes in the light from a sun-like star known as HD 10180 in the southern constellation Hydrus.
Located 127 light-years from Earth, HD 10180 wobbles ever so slightly, as it is tugged this way and that by the gravity of a retinue of unseen planets. Over the course of 190 observations, astronomers were able to confirm the presence of at least five Neptune-like planets between 13 and 25 times as massive as Earth.
All five worlds orbit HD 10180 at distances ranging from 0.06 and 1.4 times the distance between the Earth and the sun, out to about 130 million miles. The much smaller, yet-to-be-confirmed planet orbits inside the five Neptune-class worlds. A seventh Saturn-class planet is believed to be at a range of 3.4 times the Earth-sun distance, taking six Earth years to complete one orbit.
According to the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia maintained by the Paris Observatory, 488 planets beyond Earth's solar system have been discovered to date. Some 15 solar systems feature at least three planets. A star known as 55 Cancri has five confirmed planets, including two Jupiter-class worlds.
The HD 10180 solar system is unique in that its planets circle the parent star in nearly circular orbits and seem to be positioned according to a relatively simple arithmetic rule that may be "a consequence of the various gravitational interactions that occur between the planets during their evolution," Lovis said.
"It is difficult to say at this point how significant this result is, but it will be very interesting to hear what our theoretician colleagues think of it," he added.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it appears the HD 10180 solar system is gravitationally stable over long time scales, despite the effects of five Neptune-class planets orbiting so close to their star.
"This was not an easy question, and answering it required in-depth dynamical analyses," Lovis said. "When modeling all major effects properly (including effects of general relativity), it turns out that the system is indeed stable over long time scales."
He said additional observations will be needed to pin down the orbit and mass of the innermost, Earth-class planet.
"We will dedicate some more telescope nights to observe the star...to improve the coverage of the 1.18-day period," he said of the smaller planet. "At the moment, we are suffering from the fact that we take one single data point per night, which makes it difficult to be sure about a 1.18-day period. I expect that we will make progress on this system within a year or so."
The observations are extremely difficult. The gravitational tug of the low-mass planet amounts to a 1.8 mph wobble in a star 127 light-years away, "which is hard to measure and, if confirmed, would represent a new record in precision," Lovis said.