Home Front Page Unprecedented: Astronomers witness birth of quad-star system

Unprecedented: Astronomers witness birth of quad-star system

Technically speaking, the universe is the oldest thing there is. That makes it unlikely that scientists will ever discover anything “new” in the making, but that’s exactly what a team of astronomers at ETH Zurich have found: The development of a new, quadruple-star system. The observation is believed to be the first of its kind.

Focusing on a gas cloud about 800 light years from Earth, the astronomers have found in the Perseus constellation for a common (yet unstable) system: A star still in the very early stages of development, and three gas clusters that are rapidly condensing due to gravity. By their estimates, the gas clouds will become stars in about 40,000 years.

“Star systems with more than three members are unstable and prone to interference,” says Jaime Pineda, now at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. Indeed, that instability makes four-star systems rare, with triple-star systems more common. In astronomical terms, the quad system is unlikely to last long: Pineda and his colleagues figure that the two closest stars will mature into their own system, while the other two will be jettisoned into space within 500,000 years.

“At first, we thought that the fragments wouldn’t interact with each other,” Pineda said.

Much is unique about this burgeoning system. For starters, Things are happening fast – the 40,000 year star development is said to be “exceptionally” fast, as these things go. It also marks the first time scientists have successfully observed a multi-star system born out of a fragmented gas cloud.

It’s also a unique phenomenon to research in the first place. Most scientists focus on one of two things: Either the formation of single stars, or the later developmental stages of multi-star systems, as both are more straightforward than what Pineda and co. have discovered. To find an early-stage system is an exceptionally special discovery.

“Seeing such a multiple star system in its early stages of formation has been a longstanding challenge, but the combination of the Very Large Array (VLA) and the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) has given us the first look at such a young system,” Pineda told phys.org.