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Astronomers at NASA have uncovered a solar system they believe to be “remarkably similar” to Earth’s. The discovery is considered a possible breakthrough in better understanding how our planet and its neighbours were formed.

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The system, around the star Epsilon Eridani, was discovered just 10 light-years away in the constellation Eradinus. According to the astronomers, it is the closest system that includes a star as youthful as our own. But while Epsilon Eridani looks like our own star, it’s actually one-fifth the age, and it resembles the sun as it was long ago.

“This star hosts a planetary system currently undergoing the same cataclysmic processes that happened to the solar system in its youth, at the time in which the moon gained most of its craters, Earth acquired the water in its oceans, and the conditions favorable for life on our planet were set,” said astronomer Massimo Marengo, one of the authors of the paper.

Marengo, an Iowa State associate professor of physics and astronomy, along with other astronomers, had been studying the star and its planetary system for more than a decade. A 2009 scientific paper explained how the astronomers used data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to describe the star’s disk of fine dust and debris left over from the formation of planets and asteroid and comet collisions. The team found the disk to have separate belts of asteroids resembling the asteroid and Kuiper belts of our solar system.

In the new paper, data was used from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. Residing in an aircraft, it’s able to take detailed pictures by aiming at distant stars. Astronomers analyzed the mission and sifted through infrared data about the star, ultimately finding that it was surrounded by two structures: an inner and outer disk, with a gap possibly created by planets.

“But we can now say with great confidence that there is a separation between the star’s inner and outer belts,” Marengo said. “There is a gap most likely created by planets. We haven’t detected them yet, but I would be surprised if they are not there. Seeing them will require using the next-generation instrumentation, perhaps NASA’s 6.5-meter James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in October 2018.”

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While it’s true a lot of time and attention has been spent on one nearby star and its debris disk, Marengo says it could help give astronomers a better look at the very ancient past of Earth and the planets surrounding it.

“The prize at the end of this road is to understand the true structure of ε Eridani’s out-of-this-world disk, and its interactions with the cohort of planets likely inhabiting its system.,” Marengo said in a newsletter story about the project. “SOFIA, by its unique ability of capturing infrared light in the dry stratospheric sky, is the closest we have to a time machine, revealing a glimpse of Earth’s ancient past by observing the present of a nearby young sun.”



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