Planets as Old as Time Itself

There has been a lot of planetary news lately, in our own solar system and beyond.  With the DAWN spacecraft approaching Ceres, New Horizons finally reaching Pluto in a few months, and the Kepler Space Telescope giving results from it’s new observing run.  Not to mention comet Lovejoy, Mars Rover anniversary, and the Venus Metal Frost story.

Normally I would pass on so much planetary news, even though it is one of my favourite areas of Astronomy.  This story, however, is just too good to pass up.

Kepler 444, a very ancient star 117 light years from Earth, about 25% smaller than the Sun, hosts four rocky planets that are thought to be nearly as old as the star itself, 11.2 Billion years!

Artist’s Depiction of the ancient rocky system. Credit: Tiago Campante/Peter Devine

These ancient planets have been around almost as long as the Universe.  They are all rocky planets, the size of Venus or smaller.  They definitely can’t support life, being scorched by their parent star during their short orbits of less than 10 days.  But as is often with new discoveries, they hold tantalizing possibilities for finding other ancient solar systems that have had Billions of years to develop life time and time again.

“We’ve never seen anything like this – it is such an old star and the large number of small planets make it very special,” said Dr Daniel Huber from the University’s School of Physics and an author on the paper. “It is extraordinary that such an ancient system of terrestrial-sized planets formed when the universe was just starting out, at a fifth its current age. Kepler-444 is two and a half times older than our solar system, which is only a youthful 4.5 billion years old.”

If we could find, and more importantly, study a an ancient planet that did have life, it would give us incredible insights into the longevity of species and systems, and could guide us to understand our own existence and future.  Right now this idea is in the realm of science fiction, but with the discovery of ancient planets around Kepler 444, it took a small step toward reality.

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