First evidence of planet formation around sun-like stars in clusters

An artist impression of one of the two gas giants discovered orbiting a sun-like star, part of a star cluster. (c) NASA/JPL-Caltech

An artist impression of one of the two gas giants discovered orbiting a sun-like star, part of a star cluster. (c) NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers, financially backed by NASA, have for the first time ever discovered tantilizing evidence that planets can form and exist around sun-like stars, densly packed together in star clusters. The finding is of significant importance, as scientists claim that it shows that planet can indeed exist in extremely harsh environments, like star clusters.

The two planets, Pr0201b and Pr0211b, were discovered each circling their own sun-like star in the Beehive Cluster, also known as the Praesepe – a cluster containing more than 1000 stars very close to one another which orbit around a center. The planets, discovered and analyzed by the 1.5-meter Tillinghast telescope located at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory near Amado, Arizona, are not habitable – far from it.

The planets are in class called Hot Jupiters, massive gas giants with boiling hot environments, because of a very tight orbit.

“We are detecting more and more planets that can thrive in diverse and extreme environments like these nearby clusters,” says Mario R Perez, NASA astrophysics program scientist in the Origins of Solar Systems Program.

“Our galaxy contains more than 1,000 of these open clusters, which potentially can present the physical conditions for harboring many more of these giant planets.”

These aren’t the first planets discovered orbiting around stars in a cluster, however they’re the first to be found orbiting around stars similar to our sun. The astronomers involved in the study hope this latest discovery might help answer how hot Jupiters wind up so close to their stars. Also, it offers proof that planets can form in harsh environments.

“This has been a big puzzle for planet hunters,” says Sam Quinn, a graduate student in astronomy at Georgia State University.

“We know that most stars form in clustered environments like the Orion nebula, so unless this dense environment inhibits planet formation, at least some sun-like stars in open clusters should have planets. Now, we finally know they are indeed there.”

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