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Triple Star System Tears Apart Its Planetary Disk

A young triple star system 1,300 light years from earth has been under close scrutiny by scientists at the University of Exeter and Leicester in England.

(This artistic impression (left) shows the inner region of the disc
in the triple-star system GW Orionis

"There have been a number of theoretical studies on disk-tearing effects, but this is the first direct evidence of effect occurring in a planet-forming disk," study co-author Alison Young of the Universities of Exeter and Leicester in England, told in an email. "This demonstrates that it is possible for such disks to be warped and broken and raises the possibility that planets could form on highly inclined orbits around multiple star systems."

The warped ring, which is located in the inner part of the GW Orionis system's disk, contains 30 Earth-masses of dust, the researchers also found. This means that the disk contains enough material to form planets.

"It's the best mechanism for forming planets on such extreme orbits, such as been found so far," lead author Stefan Kraus, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Exeter in the UK, told, referring to the warping observed in GW Orionis. "But … from the planet-detection side, we don't have a way of detecting these planets yet."

While the researchers have yet to detect planets within this system, the groundbreaking study confirms what scientists have suspected for years: that multi-star systems can break their own disks, leaving inclined, misaligned rings around its stars.


Science fiction readers have long been familiar with this scenario. In his 1933 story The Three Suns of Ev, Golden Age author Edwin K. Sloat describes the plight of a planet threatened by the conflicting pull of three mighty suns!

“What is this problem confronting your people, Neis?” he asked quietly.

Neis swept his arm about in an expressive arc.

“The three suns of Ev,” he replied dramatically. “They are tearing our world to pieces !”

Our three suns comprise what you astronomers of earth might call a triple star. They are Mai, the big crimson sun shining ahead of us there, Xol, the huge blue sun that is off to the left of us now- and is hidden by the opaque portion of the ship, and Thov, the yellow dwarf of a sun that is just coming into view there below our feet.

“Our planet, Ev, hangs spinning in the triangle formed by the three, and the three suns revolve slowly around it.

“For untold millions of years the resultant of the forces of the triangle was in equlibrium. Then the giant blue Xol, with his superior gravity pulled little Thov slightly toward him — or so the older school of scientists claim. At any rate Thov has for same reason or other gotten out of place and has upset the delicate balance of our system.

“Ev has begun to swing back and forth a trifle. Either the conflicting pull of the three suns, or atomic disintegration set up by the spinning of our planet in a new and unknown electrical field created by the changed positions of the three suns — these are the two principal schools of scientific thought about the phenomenon, and they have nearly caused civil wars both among my people and among the Thaks — is the cause of the threatened destruction of our world. Violent temblors, increasing volcanic activity and enormous, erratic tides have been hinting at our approaching doom.”

Unfortunately, the professor was unable to halt the destruction of the Thak world. The conflicting influences of the three suns was too extreme.

I glanced up to behold a great cloud of smoke and dust from the exploding volcanoes spreading across the heavens and slowly obscuring the bloody light of Mai. Underfoot the ground was vibrating as though a terrific diastrophism far down in the bowels of the planet was slowly and relentlessly tearing it to pieces. It is the process or processes by which the earth’s surface is changed, producing ocean beds and mountains and other cosmic features.

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