Space Porn

A bounty of planets awaits in the Beehive Cluster.

It’s that time of year again. The season where we start thinking about harvests and crops: apples, pumpkins, squash, and – planets? According to NASA-funded astronomers, yes – this year, anyway.

For the first time ever, planets have been spotted orbiting stars resembling our own sun. These findings offer the best evidence yet that planets can develop in crowded stellar environments. These new-found planets, known as hot Jupiters, are enormous gaseous orbs that are boiling hot because of how tightly they orbit around their parent stars in what is known as a Beehive Cluster – a grouping of stars, all born at the same time from the same cloud of material, sharing  similar chemical composition.

The Cancer constellation.

The Beehive Cluster – aka Praecepe (the manger), aka M44 – sits in the center of the Cancer constellation, right next to Asellus Australus and is approximately 577 light years away from earth. If you’d like to take a look at this cluster, you’ll need to get out of the city and bring binoculars, as Cancer is a faint constellation. Be looking for it around January through March.

Although previous searches of clusters had established two planets around massive stars, none had been found around stars like our sun until now. This finding paves the way for further understanding of star migration; the Beehive clusters are currently among the youngest known, setting a constraint on how quickly giant planets can migrate inward. Knowing how quickly they migrate is the first step to learning how they migrate.

Although it has not yet been officially determined, research teams suspect the planets were found in the Beehive cluster due to its rich metals. According to Russel White, principal investigator of the NASA Origins of Solar Systems grant which funded this study,

“Searches for planets around nearby stars suggest that these metals act like a ‘planet fertilizer,’ leading to an abundant crop of gas giant planets. Our results suggest this may be true in clusters as well.”

Well, ‘tis the season, after all – happy harvest!