Capturing an exoplanet family portrait

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: A Weird Solar System Cousin Makes Its Photographic Debut / View Guide

Directions for teachers: After your students read the online Science News article “This is the first picture of a sunlike star with multiple exoplanets,” ask them to answer the following questions. A version of the story, “A weird solar system cousin makes its photographic debut,” can be found in the August 29, 2020 issue of Science News. Students reading the print version should skip questions No. 3 and No. 6.    

1. What did astronomers take a picture of with the Very Large Telescope?

Astronomers photographed a star orbited by two exoplanets.

2. What makes this picture special? Explain.

It is the first photo of a sunlike star that has more than one exoplanet. There are photos of only two other stars with multiple exoplanets, and neither of those stars is sunlike.

3. Define “exoplanet” based on the article’s context

An exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star other than our sun. Students may also define exoplanet as a planet that exists outside of our solar system. 

4. According to the online Science News article, how do astronomers typically observe exoplanets? How many have they found?

Astronomers have found thousands of exoplanets. Most are observed as shadows crossing in front of stars. Scientists also can discover exoplanets without seeing shadows based on how the planets tug at stars.

5. Are photographs of exoplanets common? How many exoplanets have had their picture taken?

No, photos of exoplanets are rare. Only a few tens of planets around other stars have been photographed.

6. What is the name of the star in the new photo and how far is it from Earth? Describe what the star looks like in the photograph.

The star is called TYC 8998-760-1 and it is about 300 light-years away. The star looks larger and brighter compared with the other bright spots in the photo, and it looks like it has an inner dot with an outer ring.

7. Describe the star’s two planets. What do the planets look like in the photograph? How are they marked so you can locate them easily?

Both planets are gas giants that are more massive than Jupiter and orbit their star at much greater distances than Earth orbits the sun. In the photo, the planets are two specks of light that are smaller than their star and are indicated by arrows (online) or circles (in print).

8. According to the online Science News article, how old is the star? How old was our solar system when the star was born?

The star is approximately 17 million years old. Our solar system is roughly 4 billion years old. That means our solar system was about 3.98 billion years old when the star formed. 

9. Why might this exoplanet family be important to astronomers?

The sunlike star and its exoplanets could help astronomers better understand how solar systems can form.

10. What questions do you still have about the image and this exoplanet family?

What is the large, diffuse red ring around the star? Why does the star appear to have a halo, or an illuminated ring on the outside of it? Could life exist on these exoplanets?