NASA discovers star system similar to ours, right on our galactic doorstep

There’s a star system that’s very similar to our own, and it could teach us a lot about how our planet was made.

NASA discovers star system similar to ours, right on our galactic doorstep

Astronomers at NASA have confirmed the discovery of a star called Epsilon Eridani, ten light years away in the constellation Eridanus (you know the one, near the Starbucks), which they think will have major implications for how we understand our solar system.

This is because the star is reportedly similar to our own sun, but one-fifth its age – meaning scientists can glean crucial information about the formation of our own star and planets. It’s a bit like looking back through time at a younger version of yourself, except nothing like that because we’re talking about complex astronomy; not Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“This star hosts a planetary system currently undergoing the same cataclysmic processes that happened to the solar system in its youth, at the time in which the moon gained most of its craters, Earth acquired the water in its oceans, and the conditions favorable for life on our planet were set,” astronomer Massimo Marengo, one of the scientists studying Epsilon Eridani, wrote in a summary of the project.

Researchers have been studying the distant star since 2004, but it’s only now that the full extent of the planetary system has come to light – thanks to NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is essentially a 2.5-metre telescope strapped to a 747 plane. As well as the star and its planets, the airborne observatory was able to investigate a debris disk in the system formed from space rock collisions.

Crucially, observation of a gap in the debris disk suggests that there is a planet that serves a similar role to Neptune in our own solar system. “It really is impressive how [Epsilon Eridani], a much younger version of our solar system, is put together like ours,” said Kate Su, lead author of the study and associate astronomer at the University of Arizona.

“The prize at the end of this road is to understand the true structure of Epsilon Eridani’s out-of-this-world disk, and its interactions with the cohort of planets likely inhabiting its system,” Marengo wrote in a post about the project.

“SOFIA, by its unique ability of capturing infrared light in the dry stratospheric sky, is the closest we have to a time machine, revealing a glimpse of Earth’s ancient past by observing the present of a nearby young sun.”

Image: NASA

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