January 16, 2014
Astronomers have used ESO’s HARPS planet hunter in Chile, along with other telescopes around the world, to discover three planets orbiting stars in the cluster Messier 67. Although more than one thousand planets outside the Solar System are now confirmed, only a handful have been found in star clusters. Remarkably one of these new exoplanets is orbiting a star that is a rare solar twin — a star that is almost identical to the Sun in all respects.
Planets orbiting stars outside the Solar System are now known to be very common. These exoplanets have been found orbiting stars of widely varied ages and chemical compositions and are scattered across the sky. But, up to now, very few planets have been found inside star clusters. This is particularly odd as it is known that most stars are born in such clusters. Astronomers have wondered if there might be something different about planet formation in star clusters to explain this strange paucity.
Anna Brucalassi (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany), lead author of the new study, and her team wanted to find out more. “In the Messier 67 star cluster the stars are all about the same age and composition as the Sun. This makes it a perfect laboratory to study how many planets form in such a crowded environment, and whether they form mostly around more massive or less massive stars.”
The team used the HARPS planet-finding instrument on ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory. These results were supplemented with observations from several other observatories around the world. They carefully monitored 88 selected stars in Messier 67 over a period of six years to look for the tiny telltale motions of the stars towards and away from Earth that reveal the presence of orbiting planets.
image credit: ESO, L. Calçada