4 Body Problem? There’s A Planet With Four Suns

By Brent McKnight | Published

Back in 2012, astronomers discovered a new planet that technically shouldn’t exist. The then, newly-found world comes complete with four suns, the gravity of which should, in theory, rip it apart.

Six times larger than Earth, this world is a “gas giant,” like Jupiter and Saturn, that is comparable to Neptune in size. While it orbits two stars, another two circle the planet itself. Frankly, this is hard to even imagine happening. And again, really shouldn’t be happening at all.

“All four stars pulling on it creates a very complicated environment,” says the University of Oxford’s Dr. Chris Lintott, talking to the BBC. He added, “Yet there it sits in an apparently stable orbit.”

All four stars pulling on it creates a very complicated environment

“You don’t have to go back too far before you would have got really good odds against one of these systems existing.”

Kian Jek and Robert Gagliano, volunteers from Planethunters.org, along with teams in the US and UK, and follow-up from Keck Observatory, are responsible for this find. Five thousand light years away, the discovery was been dubbed PH1, in a tip of the hat to the website.

Binary star systems, while not common, are not unheard of either. Six known planets exist around double stars and get along just fine. Though similar set-ups exist, there are no identified structures with additional stars orbiting around the planet.

Lintott called the discovery both “confusing” and “unexpected” but also a lot of fun. He added, “I think what this is telling us is planets can form in the inner parts of protoplanetary discs (the torus of dense gas that gives rise to planetary systems).”

“The planets are forming close in and are able to cling to a stable orbit there. That probably has implications for how planets form elsewhere.”

And if we were actually standing on the planet as observers, the sky would appear to host one small sun and two bright stars visible in daylight. And you would need a huge telescope to resolve one of the bright stars into a binary pair.

Another reason this find becomes fascinating and a bit timely in the current science fiction landscape is the popularity of 3 Body Problem on Netflix. In that one, the Trisolaran civilization is an alien race from a planet with three suns. These objects give the planet a chaotic orbit that basically destroys everything and the civilization must start from scratch each time around.

There’s more to the story here, but from the Trisolaran perspective, having three suns has made living on the planet basically impossible over the long term.

As we turn our gaze further and further into space, we are likely to continue finding planetary and solar system occurrences that don’t seem like they should happen. It’s inevitable. So finding a planet with four suns could be something we see again. Frankly it makes Tatooine just kind of normal by comparison.

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