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This snapshot of an alien exoplanet might be a big first for astronomy

This snapshot of an alien exoplanet might be a big first for astronomy


It's in a super weird solar system

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The star of the above glamour shot is a star named CVSO 30, which is 1,200 light-years from Earth and located just a smidge north of Orion's belt. But if you squint, you'll see a tiny brown dot just above CVSO 30. That brown dot has been the subject of much excitement in the astronomy world. It's a special brown dot.

In fact, it's an exoplanet that scientists are calling CVSO 30c, and it's the second to be discovered orbiting this particular star. What makes it special is its enormous orbit — its distance from its sun is about 660 times our distance from our Sun at any given time, and it takes 27,000 years for it to complete a roundtrip. This is odd, mainly because the other planet orbiting the same star (CVSO 30b) is much, much closer to it. CVSO 30b completes an orbit in a little less than 11 hours.

this oddball star system might be an astronomy first

The closer planet was discovered in 2012, using a common method called transit photometry. In other words, scientists watched the star and saw that its light wasn't as bright when something crossed in front of it. That "something" was a planet.

It is extremely difficult, often impossible, to look at small planets this far away with a telescope: the light from their parent stars can cast a huge glare and completely engulf them (that's the main reason scientists would bother with the tedious process of transit photometry in the first place). However, in the case of the newly discovered CVSO 30c, the planet's orbit takes it far enough away from its star to avoid this problem.

Scientists at the European Space Observatory's Very Large Telescope facility in Chile, the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain pooled their efforts to create this incredible image of the distant planet. If their findings are confirmed, it would be a big first — the ESO says scientists have never found a star system in which one planet is close enough to its star require the transit method and one is distant enough to be spotted with direct imaging.

A further curiosity: the oddball star system is very young by the cosmos' standards. At only 2.5 million years of age, scientists aren't sure how it got so weird so fast. Representatives for the ESO suggest it's possible that the planets collided at some point, bouncing off each other like billiard balls and landing in their unprecedented positions.

Rocky Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting nearby star