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Discovery in Space

PLANET HUNTER An artist’s illustration shows NASA’s TESS satellite orbiting Earth. NASA/AP

Astronomers have discovered an unusual solar system near Earth. It’s made up of six planets orbiting a star. What makes this system rare is that the planets’ orbits appear to be coordinated. Scientists compare their movement to a perfectly timed symphony.

It’s “precise, very orderly,” says Enric Pallé, an astronomer at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands.

The discovery was announced on November 29. It’s based on data from two orbiting satellites, NASA’s TESS and the European Space Agency’s Cheops. The newly discovered system is 100 light-years from Earth­, or about 600 trillion miles. That’s close, in space terms. Astronomers are calling the system a “golden target” for further study. It could offer an example of how systems across the Milky Way were formed.

All solar systems are thought to have started out like this one. But they rarely keep their perfect timing. Giant planets can throw off the orbits of other planets. So can meteor impact. These things have happened in our solar system.

Hugh Osborn, of the University of Bern, in Switzerland, says his team was “shocked and delighted” by the discovery. “My jaw was on the floor,” he says. “That was a really nice moment.”

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