Solar system like oursStaff writer ▼ | Friday September 3, 2010 6:01PM ET
Astronomers using HARPS instrument have discovered a planetary system containing at least five planets, orbiting the Sun-like star HD 10180. The researchers also have tantalising evidence that two other planets may be present, one of which would have the lowest mass ever found.
This would make the system similar to our Solar System in terms of the number of planets - seven as compared to the Solar System's eight planets. The team also found evidence that the distances of the planets from their star follow a regular pattern, as also seen in our Solar System.
The team of astronomers used the HARPS spectrograph, attached to ESO's 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla, Chile, for a six years long study of the Sun-like star HD 10180, located 127 light-years away in the southern constellation of Hydrus (the Male Water Snake). HARPS is an instrument with unrivalled measurement stability and great precision and is the world's most successful exoplanet hunter.
The astronomers detected the tiny back and forth motions of the star caused by the complex gravitational attractions from five or more planets. The five strongest signals correspond to planets with Neptune-like masses, between 13 and 25 Earth masses, which orbit the star with periods ranging from about 6 to 600 days. These planets are located between 0.06 and 1.4 times the Earth-Sun distance from their central star. The astronomers believe that two other planets are also present.
The newly discovered system of planets around HD 10180 is unique in several respects. First of all, with at least five Neptune-like planets lying within a distance equivalent to the orbit of Mars, that system is more populated than our Solar System in its inner region, and has many more massive planets there. Then, the system probably has no Jupiter-like gas giant. In addition, all the planets seem to have almost circular orbits.
So far, astronomers know of fifteen systems with at least three planets. The last record-holder was 55 Cancri, which contains five planets, two of them being giant planets.
Another important result found by the astronomers while studying these systems is that there is a relationship between the mass of a planetary system and the mass and chemical content of its host star. All very massive planetary systems are found around massive and metal-rich stars, while the four lowest-mass systems are found around lower-mass and metal-poor stars. ■