The life cycle of other star systems is not unlike our own solar system in the fact that everything that lives, and ultimately everything dies. Over the years, we've seen a number of planetary systems that are gradually inching toward their death, be it through supernovae, black holes or other cataclysmic events (sometimes, they are just gobbled up by their Sun). However, seeing the first moments of a planetary system's life is far more rare. What's more rare is that such systems effectively give us a glimpse into our own past. As such, they are immeasurably important when it comes to understanding the process that formed our solar system.
Now, astronomers from the University of Arizona have reportedly snapped a baby picture of a young planetary system, lurking almost 300 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Carina, that's analogous to ours when it was still in its infancy. Among the many similarities, Like our neighborhood, the star, dubbed HD 95086, appears to have not one, but two dust belts; only here, both belts are enclosed within a much larger disk of dust (something that's now believed to be a rite of passage for all young, planet-forming stars).
Notably, this isn't the first planetary system of its kind. Astronomers have also seen such belts around another, more evolved star, cataloged as HR 8799 (it can be found about 129 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus).
This system, which is one of a small handful of stars with multiple planets to have been directly imaged, is known to harbor four rather large planets (not unlike Jupiter, Saturn Uranus and Neptune), each scattered throughout the gap between belt one (like our asteroid belt) and belt two (like our Kuiper Belt). In other words, this system's dynamics are eerily similar to those of our solar system.
According to the researchers, "Finding another star similar to HR 8799 suggests a common model for how stars form planets and how their planetary systems evolve."
The surprises don't end there either. The team also found the relative age of each system significant, with both forming between 10 and 90 million years ago — the period of time in which models say gas giant formation comes to a halt, giving rocky, Earth-like worlds a chance to flourish.
For that reason, "We think HD 95086 is a snapshot of what our solar system might have looked like when it was only 10 to 20 million years old," notes Kate Su, the lead author of the paper. They expand on the findings:
Additionally, these observations make it all the more likely that — like HR 8799 and a slew of older systems lurking nearby (systems that include notable stars like Vega and Fomalhaut) HD 95086 and its double disks provide clear evidence of multiple planets forming simultaneously.
Furthermore, by finding more of these systems, seeing how they evolve as they age, and comparing them to other planetary systems in their age group, astronomers can better understand the forces at work within these immensely large (and almost secretive) walls of thick interstellar dust.
With HD 95086, in particular, finding the exact location of one or more planets would give us a starting point in our search for other worlds that might be hidden in plain site. Given the distances involved, all the dust, and how much a parent star drowns out any orbiting planet's light, we can definitely use all the help we can get.
You can read the full press release here.