This Is the First Direct Image Taken of Two Planets Orbiting Their Young Star

This star system may be able to teach us about how our own formed.

Two stars in the night sky.
The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) has taken the first ever image of a young, Sun-like star accompanied by two giant exoplanets.

 ESO/Bohn et al

Behold, the first direct image of a planetary system gathered around a star that looks a lot like our sun. Indeed, the whole system, which lies about 300 light-years away, bears an uncanny resemblance to our own — but back when our solar system was young and hungry.

The star TYC 8998-760-1 with two planets in orbit.
The young star, called TYC 8998-760-1, is seen here with two gas giants in orbit. ESO/Bohn et al

The image, taken by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), may go a long way towards helping us understand how our own planetary neighborhood formed.

Publishing their findings in the Astrophysical Journal Letters this week, researchers noted the incredible rarity of capturing a single exoplanet’s image. In this case, they snapped two planets along with a very familiar-looking star, dubbed TYC 8998-760-1. 

“Even though astronomers have indirectly detected thousands of planets in our galaxy, only a tiny fraction of these exoplanets have been directly imaged,” study co-author Matthew Kenworthy from Leiden University, notes in a statement.

“Direct observations are important in the search for environments that can support life.”

But these planets appear a long way from supporting life as we know it. For one thing, they’re gas giants, like Saturn and Jupiter. They’re also very far from their star — around 160 and 320 times the distance between the sun and Earth, respectively. That’s far beyond the orbits of our own local gas giants. 

A chart showing the location of the TYC 8998-760-1 system
This chart shows the location of the TYC 8998-760-1 system. This map shows most of the stars visible to the unaided eye under good conditions and the system itself is marked with a red circle.  ESO

The thing is, this is an up-and-coming solar system, with a young whippersnapper of a star at the helm. 

“This discovery is a snapshot of an environment that is very similar to our Solar System, but at a much earlier stage of its evolution,” lead study author Alexander Bohn, of Leiden University notes.

At a mere 17 million years old, TYC 8998-760-1 is just a baby compared to the sun’s well-ripened 4.6 billion years. And young stars, as we know, have a certain flair for drama that can easily end up transforming their environs. 

This young planetary system has a lot of growing up to do. And although we may not be around to witness its life journey, the star system can still tell us a lot about our own solar history.

“The possibility that future instruments, such as those available on the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope), will be able to detect even lower-mass planets around this star marks an important milestone in understanding multi-planet systems, with potential implications for the history of our own solar system,” Bohn adds.