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For decades, astronomers observed that planets form far out from their star’s surface. But new research published today in Science tells us that planets aren’t so big, distant outliers that they just happen to fit into the orbit of their host star. Rather, we’re seeing some kind of planet–planet–planet dance.
Astronomers have spent the last three decades studying exoplanets to look for the subtle wobbles that are typical for gas giants: How do gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, keep their planets in close quarters, while still losing mass? As astronomers have grown stronger at spotting and tracking these planets’ movements, they’ve seen a gradual shift toward more massive planets orbiting far out across the habitable zone, where liquid water and support for life might exist. The idea that rocky planets are common and planet–like is supported by observations of the atmospheres of stars like our Sun. But what about star systems with multiple orbiting planets?
According to a new study co-authored by Kip Thorne from the University of California, Los Angeles and colleagues, it appears that gas giants are less likely than previously believed to have planets that orbit far out.
The study has two parts: The first analyses how the orbital incline of planets changes with distance from their star and shows that gas giants, which have far less mass than planets smaller than Earth have, have less difficulty keeping their planets closer than larger ones. The second part analyzes how different types of planets (i.e. planets that orbit very closely or that rotate around the Sun or in their own star’s gravitational field) interact with their host stars in their orbit around the star — an analysis that suggests that for gas giants, the host can affect the size of their planets via feedback. The current study also suggests that planets like Earth in our solar system might not have been in danger due to the influence of the host star in creating the planets we have today.
While there are some planetary types that are more prone to large-scale planet formation like gas giants, Thorne says this study suggests that a lot of planets are more likely to find themselves in the habitable zones of their host stars rather than be formed by the gravitational pull of the stars they orbit.
“As our planet was forming, it may have been in an orbit closer to the star than other planets have been to them that were later born
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