A rare young star just a bit larger than our sun caught astronomers' eye when they noticed its light periodically disappeared from the sky.
Researchers from various countries began to wonder what was causing these mysterious eclipses so they teamed up to study the baffling phenomenon, in a project led by the University of Warwick.
The star is called PDS 110 and sits more than 1,000 light-years away from our home planet, in the Orion constellation.
After analyzing data detailing the star's activity during the span of 15 years, Hugh Osborn, an astronomer at Warwick's Astrophysics Group, discovered an "unusual light curve" and came up with a theory to explain what was behind the curious occurrence.
Eclipsed By A Giant Gas Planet
Along with astronomers from Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, and Leiden Observatory, Osborn combed through data provided by the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) and Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) to take a closer look at the star's activity.
Osborn uncovered PDS 110's light is regularly blocked by a large object, which he believes is in fact an undiscovered giant planet orbiting the distant star.
The astronomer is convinced the unexplained eclipses are caused by the alien exoplanet as it revolves around the young star.
"We found a hint that this was an interesting object in data from the WASP survey, but it wasn't until we found a second, almost identical eclipse in the KELT survey data that we knew we had something special," said Osborn in a Warwick University news release.
According to the data, the light emitted by PDS 110, which has the same temperature as our sun and only slightly larger in size, is regularly diminished to 30 percent.
This happens every two and a half years and lasts for up to three weeks. The researchers also found records of two important eclipses, which took place in November 2008 and January 2011.
Life-Harboring Moons May Be Forming Near The Unknown Planet
The WASP and KELT data suggests the giant exoplanet orbiting PDS 110 is up to 50 times larger than Jupiter's mass, and is also encircled by a ring of dust.
"The characteristics of the eclipses are consistent with transits by an unseen low-mass (1.8 – 70MJup) planet or brown dwarf," wrote the researchers in a study, published May 20 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Matthew Kenworthy, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory and co-author or the study, says there is a good chance the unknown exoplanet has rings just like Saturn, only many times larger. This would explain why PDS 110's light changes so rapidly, as observed during both eclipses.
The researchers also have reasons to believe moons might be forming near the giant gas planet, in the habitable zone around the star. This hints at the possibility that life could spark in the new system.
The team is looking forward to the next eclipse, which is expected to happen this September, so they can further study the phenomenon.
According to Osborn, September's eclipse will allow astronomers to analyze the details around the young star for the first time. He hopes the new information will confirm "that what we are seeing is a giant exoplanet and its moons in the process of formation."
Since the star is considerably large, amateur astronomers worldwide will be able to witness the next eclipse and help gather new data.
In case the predicted September eclipse is confirmed, "PDS 110 will be the first giant ring system that has a known orbital period," announces Warwick University.