A Faraway Solar System Is an Uncanny Reflection of Our Own – The Atlantic

This other solar system looks almost cozy, but these planets are a few hundred times farther from their star than Saturn and Jupiter are from our own. There might be rocky planets like Earth somewhere in this system, Kenworthy said, but they would be too small for even our most powerful telescopes to spot. As far as we can tell, this system is not like our home in the cosmos, and yet its landscape seems somehow familiar, like seeing a photograph of a famous skyline with a few skyscrapers missing. My first thought when I saw this image was, Huh, I wonder how things are going there. Maybe theyre having a better time of it than we are.

Read: The before times of a solar system

This is, I realize, an absurd thoughta knee-jerk projection of pandemic stress at a time when the fight against the coronavirus in the United States feels more frustrating and helpless each day. Our world seems particularly exhausting right now, and these kinds of astronomical observations provide a strange sense of comfort. They present a different version of something recognizable, and an opportunity to imagine a calmer existence, in which the pandemic isnt always on our minds.

Maddalena Reggiani, a postdoctoral researcher at KU Leuven, in Belgium, and one of the researchers in this study, gets a similar feelingnot my desperate wishful thinking about an alternate reality, but the sense that she is looking at a cosmic doppelgnger. This image, after all, resembles how our own solar system appears in textbooks and on classroom posters: as a ball of fire suspended in the darkness, with a few glassy marbles circling it.

To produce the image, Kenworthy and his colleagues compared multiple observations of the solar system. In the first set, the star is surrounded by several blobs of glowing gas, any one of which could be a planet. In the second set, taken some time later, some of the orbs have moved, while others have stayed put, as unmoving as the star itself. The objects that shifted turned out to be other stars, somewhere in the background, moving along on their own journey through space. The objects that stuck around, the researchers concluded, were planets.

Read: A breakthrough way to see distant planets

Astronomers seek out such cosmic doppelgngers to learn about our own history. By studying a baby version of the sun somewhere else, they can better understand how our own adult sunall the planets around itcame to be. Studying images of similar solar systems is like looking at a childhood photo album. We cant, during our lifetime, look at how a planetary system is born and how it evolves, Reggiani told me. All we can do is look at stars at different ages so we can guess a little bit at the history of our solar system.

Cosmic analogues can also help scientists understand the kinds of circumstances that can lead to a planet sprouting life, even if all they see is gas planets capable of producing only swirling cloud tops instead of squirming organisms. Spotting a couple of gas planets in another solar system is not the triumphant discovery that detecting an Earthlike atmosphere on a rocky exoplanet would be, but it is an important bread crumb in the search for life in the universe.

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A Faraway Solar System Is an Uncanny Reflection of Our Own - The Atlantic

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