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Four Suns

March 8, 2013

If you looked up in your sky today and saw four suns, you’d probably be hallucinating - unless you lived on a planet that was recently discovered in observations by the Kepler spacecraft. Designated PH1, the planet is a giant world that belongs to a quadruple star system.

The planet orbits a closely bound pair of the stars every four and a half months. One of the stars is much brighter than the other. In fact, the yellow-white star is brighter than the Sun. But its companion star is just the opposite. It’s a faint cosmic ember known as a red dwarf - a star that’s much smaller, lighter, and fainter than the Sun.

But there are two more stars in the distance, about 30 times farther from PH1 than Pluto is from Earth. Depending on where the planet is in its orbit around its two main suns, these two distant stars can appear during the day, during the night, or during both - just as our Moon sometimes appears during the day, the night, or both.

Remarkably, this planet wasn’t found by professional astronomers. Instead, it was discovered by a couple of amateurs. They were analyzing Kepler data on their home computers as part of a project called Planet Hunters, which is open to anyone who wants to join. So the planet’s name - PH1 - stands for “Planet Hunters One.” Despite the somewhat dull name, though, PH1 is an extraordinary world: a planet that’s illuminated by four suns.

We’ll have more about the search for exoplanets tomorrow.


Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2013

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