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Mysterious eclipses may trace back to giant ringed planet

Astronomers have a good idea why a distant star is winking out. A massive planet with rings bigger than Saturn's could be the culprit.

Stand back, Saturn. This artist's concept shows what the giant ringed planet might look like.
University of Warwick

It's a celestial mystery that may have a fascinatingly weird answer. A young star named PDS 110 lives in the Orion constellation, about 1,000 light-years from Earth. It's visible to amateur astronomers and it behaves strangely from time to time. Something eclipses the star every 2.5 years, causing a dimming event that lasts several weeks. 

Researchers looked into 15 years worth of data on the star collected by the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) program and Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) and homed in on two of these eclipse events from 2008 and 2011.

"What's exciting is that during both eclipses we see the light from the star change rapidly, and that suggests that there are rings in the eclipsing object, but these rings are many times larger than the rings around Saturn," says astronomer Matthew Kenworthy, co-author of the study "Periodic Eclipses of the Young Star PDS 110 Discovered with WASP and KELT Photometry." The study's been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal. 

Scientists think a humongous gas giant planet with 50 times the mass of Jupiter is blocking the star's light. This idea could be confirmed during the next expected eclipse in September, when both amateur and professional astronomers will view and gather data on the event. 

Study co-author Hugh Osborn at the UK's University of Warwick hopes the observations will "prove that what we are seeing is a giant exoplanet and its moons in the process of formation." 

There's another angle to this story. If the planet exists, the forming moons would be located in the star's habitable zone, "pointing to the possibility that life could thrive in this system." It's no wonder astronomers are fascinated by the possibilities represented by the mystery planet.

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