NASA finds new planet with ‘three suns’ and super-rare corkscrew orbit

NASA ’s orbital TESS satellite, which searches for distant planets by identifying the incredibly tiny changes that occur when they pass in front of their parent stars, has spotted a planet with a bizarre corkscrew orbit around three suns.

The planet, designated KOI-5Ab, is likely to be a gas giant planet with no solid surface.

It orbits a star in its star system, KOA-5A, once every five days.

Meanwhile, that star and its companion orbit KOI-5B each other once every 30 years and the third star in the grouping KOI-5C orbits the entire system once every 400 years.

David Ciardi, chief scientist of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute, said the newly-discovered planet is a very rare discovery: “We don’t know of many planets that exist in triple-star systems, and this one is extra special because its orbit is skewed,” he said in a statement.

“We still have a lot of questions about how and when planets can form in multiple-star systems and how their properties compare to planets in single-star systems. By studying this system in greater detail, perhaps we can gain insight into how the universe makes planets.”

The bizarre star system is now being studied by other astronomers using several ground-based telescopes, including the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The eccentric orbit is still being analysed but, the NASA statement said, astronomers "believe that the second star gravitationally kicked the planet during its development, skewing its orbit and causing it to migrate inward".

While two and three-star systems are common in the galaxy, so far comparatively few planets have been spotted in them.

Around 10% of all star systems involve three stars, according to NASA, but taken together multiple-star groupings are more like 85% of all star systems identified so far.

The complex planetary orbits in such systems could make it very difficult for complex life to evolve on them, ruling out a great many stars from the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy.

A report in November 2013 based on data from the Kepler space telescope, estimated that there could be as many as 40 billion potentially habitable Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way,

So far, astronomers have positively identified around 4,000 of them, with 24 classified as super habitable – more hospitable to life than our own planet.

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