Vega has been imagined as home to alien intelligence. Now the bright star system is finally coming into focus.
One of the brightest stars in the sky may host one of the most scorching-hot planets known.
Astronomers combed through a decade’s worth of data on the nearby young star Vega, also a staple setting of science fiction stories like Carl Sagan’s Contact, and found signs of a sweltering world in close orbit. They detail their research in a paper published in the Astronomical Journal.
Hidden in 10 years of observations from the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona is a signal that suggests a giant planet somewhere between the size of Neptune and Jupiter is orbiting Vega closer than the planet Mercury orbits our own sun.
It would be a world unlikely to host the intelligent, ethereal beings that welcome Jodie Foster’s character to their system in the 1997 movie version of Contact. That’s because it would whip around Vega so close that years on this yet-to-be-confirmed planet would last less than three Earth days and surface temperatures would soar to an average of 5,390 degrees Fahrenheit.
This would be the second hottest planet known to science, an utterly uncomfortable and thoroughly uninhabitable place where iron melts into gas and any intelligent beings would certainly have a headache at the very least.
But what’s interesting isn’t the knowledge that Vega, which can be seen even in twilight before most other stars emerge, hosts a wicked hot gas giant. This initial discovery could be a stepping stone to other fascinating finds in the system and elsewhere.
«This is a massive system, much larger than our own solar system,» study lead Spencer Hurt, an astronomy undergraduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a statement. «There could be other planets throughout that system. It’s just a matter of whether we can detect them.»
Added co-author Samuel Quinn, «It would be really exciting to find a planet around Vega because it offers possibilities for future characterization in ways that planets around fainter stars wouldn’t.»
Vega is only 25 light-years from Earth, making it one of our closest neighbors in cosmic terms. While there’s still work to do to confirm the presence of any planets orbiting it, this new research begins to line up the reality of one of the brightest stars in the sky with our most vivid imaginings of what it might be like there.