Astronomical phenomena tend to occur over timespans that dwarf our human scale—a galaxy changes over millions and billions of years, not decades. But a new timelapse of observations of a distant star system shows its clockwork motion over just 12 years, packed into only a few seconds.
The star, known as HR8799, was the first extrasolar planetary system to ever be directly imaged. Recently, Jason Wang, an astrophysics professor at Northwestern University, used over a decade’s worth of observations of the system to create a five-second animation that depicts the motion of four large planets orbiting the star. Wang and his colleagues collected the 12 years of data using the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
“It’s usually difficult to see planets in orbit,” Wang said in a press release from Northwestern. “For example, it isn’t apparent that Jupiter or Mars orbit our sun because we live in the same system and don’t have a top-down view. Astronomical events either happen too quickly or too slowly to capture in a movie. But this video shows planets moving on a human time scale. I hope it enables people to enjoy something wondrous.”
HR8799 is located over 130 light-years away from Earth, in the Pegasus constellation. The star has 1.5 times the Sun’s mass and is about five times as luminous. Four giant planets call the star home, each of which is larger than our own Jupiter. The innermost planet takes about 45 years to complete an orbit, while the outermost planet takes almost five centuries. (Neptune, the most distant known planet in our solar system, orbits the Sun every 165 years.)
“There’s nothing to be gained scientifically from watching the orbiting systems in a time lapse video, but it helps others appreciate what we’re studying,” Wang said. “It can be difficult to explain the nuances of science with words. But showing science in action helps others understand its importance.”
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This current animation from Wang is not his first; the researcher produced a similar, shorter animation in 2017 after seven years of observational data. Wang’s animations offer a tangible perspective to planetary motion—a phenomenon that we may have only been able to simulate or read about before.
Correction: A previous version of this story’s headline said the system is 130 million light-years from Earth, when actually it is 130 light-years away.