Direct images of a star system with at least four orbiting planets captured using W. M. Keck Observatory have been stitched together to create a stunning video to show the planets orbiting the star for the first ever time.
Years of observation of the star star HR 8799 by a team of astronomers has culminated into a video that not only shows us the orbits of planets around a star located 129 light years away in the constellation of Pegasus, it also proves the capabilities of modern astronomy and how the work can help us garner more information about alien worlds hundreds of light years away sitting here on Earth.
Imaged directly for the first time in 2008 by Dr. Christian Marois of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics and his team, the HR 8799 star system was initially thought to have only three planets. While the star system was imaged directly for the first time by Dr Marois group, it was in 1998 that the planets were discovered by the NICMOS instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope. The forth planet was discovered after further observations in 2009–2010.
Jason Wang, an astronomy graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, did the magic of creating the stunning animation by stitching together eight observations of the planets since 2009 followed by implementation of interpolation algorithm to draw the orbit between those points. The end result is a stunning animation [embedded above and below].
The orbits of the four planets are very long ranging from 40 to 400 years. According to the information provided by the research team, the planets around HR 8799 are massive and are quite far from each other. Because of those large separations, Wang said astronomers will be watching to see if the system is stable or if some of the planets may be ejected from the system. Researchers think that the four planets may well be in resonance with each other.
In this case it’s a one-two-four-eight resonance, meaning that each planet has an orbital period in nearly precise ratio with the others in the system. The black circle in the center of the image is part of the observing and analyzing effort to block the blinding light of the star, and thus make the planets visible. Check out the video below: