Six “Mini-Neptunes” Orbit Same Star in Unusually Synchronized Precision

Astronomers have discovered a peculiar celestial performance—a gravitational ballet featuring six planets in synchronous orbit around a diminutive star. Unlike the flamboyant spectacle often associated with celestial discoveries, this synchronized orbital dance offers a nuanced insight into the intricacies of planet formation and evolution. In this exploration, we delve into the scientific details of this celestial phenomenon, avoiding embellishments and hyperbole to present a comprehensive understanding of the discovery.

At the heart of this cosmic arrangement is a star about 100 light-years from Earth, modest in size and cooler than our own Sun. Orbiting this unassuming star are six planets, intriguingly termed “sub-Neptunes.” These planets, akin to scaled-down versions of our Neptune, engage in a rhythmic orbital pattern that caught the attention of astronomers. The star, identified as HD 110067, hosts this peculiar planetary family, revealing an orbital dance so precise that it can be likened to a harmonious musical composition.

In the vast tapestry of the cosmos, multi-planet systems are commonplace. However, the phenomenon observed in the HD 110067 system is anything but ordinary—it involves tight gravitational resonances among the planets. Orbital resonance, a gravitational phenomenon, occurs when planets exert a regular, periodic gravitational influence on each other. While resonant systems are not uncommon, those exhibiting such tight and precise resonances are a rarity in astronomical observations.

In the case of HD 110067, the innermost planet completes three orbits around the star for every two orbits of the next planet in line—a gravitational arrangement known as a 3/2 resonance. This resonant pattern repeats among the four closest planets. Moving outward, the outermost planets engage in a 4/3 resonance, with the fourth planet completing four orbits for every three orbits of the next planet. These resonant orbits, characterized by a predictable and cyclic rhythm, have likely persisted since the system’s formation billions of years ago.

What sets this planetary system apart is the remarkable stability of its resonant orbits. Unlike many systems that undergo tumultuous events during the early stages of planet formation—such as collisions, mergers, or breakups—the HD 110067 system appears to have maintained its rhythmic dance without significant disruptions. The 3/2 and 4/3 resonances of the planets remain remarkably consistent, providing scientists with a unique window into the early history of this planetary system.

Stability often implies that the planets within the system settled into their resonant orbits early in their formation. This rigidity in orbital configuration prompts astronomers to question the traditional narrative of chaotic early planetary dynamics. To refine this understanding, precise measurements of the planets’ masses and orbits become crucial, enabling scientists to unravel the intricate details of how this stable system formed.

The journey to uncover the secrets of HD 110067 began with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS, designed to detect tiny eclipses or “transits” as planets pass in front of their host stars, provided the initial hints of this planetary system. However, the challenge lay in discerning the number of planets involved and their specific orbital characteristics.

Astronomers faced the daunting task of teasing apart the observational data gathered by TESS over two separate observations, two years apart. The two innermost planets, with orbital periods (or “years”) of 9 and 14 days, respectively, were initially identified. Further assistance came from the European Space Agency’s CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite (CHEOPS), which contributed data revealing a third planet with an orbital period of approximately 20 days.

As astronomers meticulously pieced together the orbital puzzle, they stumbled upon an extraordinary revelation—the three planets exhibited a 3/2 resonance, suggesting the existence of a fourth planet. The scientific team, led by Rafael Luque from the University of Chicago, embarked on a mathematical and gravitational exploration to identify the missing piece of the celestial ensemble.

Guided by a list of potential resonances that could exist in such systems, the scientists systematically matched the remaining transits observed by TESS to the resonance patterns. This meticulous process revealed the probable existence of a fourth planet with an orbital period of about 31 days. However, two additional transits remained unaccounted for due to their single observations, requiring further investigation.

In a fortuitous turn of events, scientist Joseph Twicken from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center noticed a potential solution to the scattered light problem in the TESS observations. Recognizing that scientist David Rapetti, also from NASA Ames and the Universities Space Research Association, was developing a new computer code to recover transit data obscured by scattered light, Twicken suggested applying this code to the TESS data.

The breakthrough came when Rapetti’s code successfully uncovered two transits for the outer planets, precisely where Luque’s team had predicted. This unexpected triumph breathed new life into the investigation, confirming the existence of a fifth planet with a 41-day orbit and a sixth planet with an orbit just under 55 days.

The unveiling of this celestial synchrony is the result of collaborative efforts by an international team of researchers. Led by Rafael Luque, the team published their findings in the journal Nature on November 29, encapsulating the intricacies of the resonant sextuplet of sub-Neptunes orbiting HD 110067.

In unraveling the synchronized dance of six planets around a modest star, scientists open a window into the mysteries of planet formation and evolution. The stability of the HD 110067 system challenges conventional narratives, prompting a reevaluation of the early dynamics of planetary systems. As researchers continue to refine their understanding through precise measurements and advanced observational techniques, the discovery of this resonant sextuplet stands as a testament to the ceaseless curiosity driving humanity’s exploration of the cosmos.