While studying data from NASA’s Tess satellite, a group of astronomers almost fell backwards by identifying a rare six-fold star system. It’s practically the astronomical equivalent of the famous (and infamous) pregnant Taubaté, who pretended to be expecting multiple babies in 2011. But it’s even better because it’s true.
The finding was only possible because the system is almost perfectly aligned, so that from here on earth we can see all the stars that pass two by two in front of each other. Tess (short for Exoplanet Transit Research Satellite) is a satellite devoted to the discovery and identification of planets outside the solar system by recording temporary reductions in the brightness of stars as planets pass in front of them. This phenomenon is called transit planetary.
However, it is not uncommon for some of these events to involve two stars instead of one star and one planet. It’s what astronomers call eclipsing binaries, and the phenomenon is more than expected. After all, more than half of the stars in the Milky Way are not lonely like the sun, but have one or more sisters.
The surprising thing here is the meeting of six stars. And yet in a system that is aligned so that you can see eclipses in all the stars from here. In fact, it is the first time that astronomers have found a “six-fold darkened star system”. It sounds like a more sophisticated version of a “Mega Master Blaster”, but that’s exactly what Brian Powell from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and his colleagues wrote in the title of their scientific paper, which is stored in the arXiv repository.
The TIC 168789840 star system is about 2,000 light years away from here and is actually made up of three pairs of stars. Each of these pairs have the stars very close together and go around each other every 1.5, 1.3, and 8.2 days. After the party is over, the 8.2-day couple orbits the other two couples (which in turn revolve around each other) for a long period of an estimated 3,000 years.
With this new discovery, 18 sextuple systems were discovered, the most famous of which is that of Castor in the constellation Gemini, which is seen with the naked eye as a single star from here on Earth, but is one of the brightest in the sky. Incidentally, this system is very similar to the new discovery. Over there, however, the positioning of the three pairs doesn’t make them dwarf binaries, making it more difficult to characterize the system in more detail.
The researchers believe that continuous observations of ICT 168789840 can help clarify the processes involved in the formation and evolution of multi-star systems. And they want to keep an eye on him to see if the couples’ orbits themselves cause them to dwarf each other from Earth’s point of view as well.
So far, apart from the 18 sextuplets, astronomers have only found two sevenfold systems, Nu Scorpii and Ar Cassiopeiae – and this is the current record for the largest number of stars ever seen in the same system.
This column is published in Folha Corrida on Mondays.
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