Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - Astronomers discover planet with four suns

Volunteer astronomers have discovered a planet, just under 5,000 light-years away, with a quadruple star system.

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 16 October

Astronomers discover planet with four suns

Volunteer astronomers have discovered a planet, just under 5,000 light-years away, with a quadruple star system.

The gas planet, more than six times the radius of Earth, orbits one pair of stars that has a second pair revolving around the first.

The planet was discovered by US volunteers Kian Jek of San Francisco and Robert Gagliano from Cottonwood, Arizona. They spotted faint dips in light caused by the planet passing in front of its parent stars. Their findings were followed-up with observations by professional astronomers at the Keck Observatory, Hawaii who confirmed the planet’s quadruple system – the first discovery of its kind.

The planet has been named PH1 after the Planet Hunters site that the two amateur astronomers are members of., set up in 2010, is a citizen science project. Volunteers have been asked to study 16 months of publicly released data from Nasa’s spacecraft observatory Keplar, to spot changes in stars’ brightness over time.

Chris Lintott, citizen science project lead in the department of physics at the University of Oxford and co-author of the PH1 report, said: "You don't have to go back too far before you would have got really good odds against one of these systems existing," the BBC reported.

"All four stars pulling on it creates a very complicated environment. Yet there it sits in an apparently stable orbit.

"That's really confusing, which is one of the things which makes this discovery so fun. It's absolutely not what we would have expected,” the University of Oxford astrophysicist continued.

In three and a half years, the Keplar team have discovered 2300 planet candidates and 2200 eclipsing binary stars including planets on P-type orbits – where the planet orbits around both stars. However, this is the first time a second pair of stars has been seen revolving around the first.

The findings of the PH1 report were presented at the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Reno, Nevada.

Questions for discussion

For primary:

  • If you discovered a planet, what would you call it and why?
  • Can you name the other planets in our solar system?

For secondary:

  • What do you think the benefits are to us of discoveries such as this?
  • What effects could four suns have on a planet’s atmosphere?

Related resources

Star systems

  • Explore the different types of stars that twinkle in our skies with an information sheet from schoolphysics.

Life cycle of a star

  • From stellar nursery to black holes, explore the life of a star with this illustrative PowerPoint.

Star of planet

  • Kick start pupils’ interest in astrophysics early by showing them the difference between stars and planets.

Earth – sun – moon

  • Explain how we get night and day with this collection of videos exploring the relationship between Earth, the sun and moon.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week

Supersonic skydiver Felix Baumgartner took to the skies on Sunday afternoon in a historic bid that saw him become the first human being to travel faster than the speed of sound in freefall.

A Pakistani teen who spoke out against the Taliban in an online blog is recovering in hospital after being shot in the head earlier this week.

A Georgian woman who claimed to be 132 years old – making her the world’s oldest human being – has died.

A choir of un- and under-employed 18-24-year-olds have raised their voices in protest and song outside the Houses of Parliament to raise awareness of youth unemployment.

In the news archive index