New observations of the Epsilon Eridani system confirm similarities with the solar system

Artist's concept of the Epsilon Eridani system (Image NASA/SOFIA/Lynette Cook)
Artist’s concept of the Epsilon Eridani system (Image NASA/SOFIA/Lynette Cook)

An article published in “The Astronomical Journal” describes a research on the Epsilon Eridani system (eps Eri) that shows similarities to the solar system. A team led by Kate Su of the University of Arizona used the SOFIA flying telescope to observe an asteroid belt and a disk of debris with some similarities to the Kuiper Belt.

The Epsilon Eridani system is 10.5 years light away from Earth, practically in the neighborhood in astronomical terms, a factor that makes it a subject of many studies. The star is a little smaller than the Sun and is young, with an estimated age of about 800 million years. Following the discovery of an asteroid belt and a debris belt it’s considered, in some respects, a young version of the solar system.

From the very beginning of the search for exoplanets, various research focused on the Epsilon Eridani system, made difficult by the star’s intense magnetic activity, which interferes with the very precise observations required to identify one or more planets. The presence of a gas giant named Epsilon Eridani b has been controversial since the announcement of its discovery in 2000 but probably it really exists. Other planets have been proposed but there’s still no certainty.

The debris disks have been studied using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) observatory is a project of NASA and DLR, the German space agency, which uses a modified Boeing 747SP to allow the use of a telescope of 2.5 meters in diameter. It’s a diameter that is about the triple of Spitzer’s offering the chance to detect much smaller details.

The SOFIA telescope’s FORCAST (Faint Object infraRed CAmera) instrument also allowed the researchers to detect infrared emissions from warm materials around Epsilon Eridani at 25-40 micron wavelengths. They are blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere so telescopes need to be at least in the high atmosphere like SOFIA or out of it like Spitzer to conduct detections of that type.

The result was that the SOFIA telescope confirmed the existence of two debris belts with distances from Epsilon Eridani similar to that of the asteroid belt and that of the planet Uranus from the Sun. The star’s motion measurement indicates the presence of a planet similar to Jupiter in a similar position.

This is a great step forward in the knowledge of the Epsilon Eridani system. Its long-known features and its vicinity have already made it interesting to science fiction authors. There’s nothing official but it could be the system that hosts the planet Vulcan in Star Trek. Surely there’s the Babylon 5 space station in the TV show of the same name. There’s the Yellowstone planet in the Revelation Space universe and in particular in the novels “Chasm City” and “The Prefect” by Alastair Reynolds. These are just examples because it really is very present in science fiction.

Scientific research on the Epsilon Eridani system will continue to try to get even clearer images of its asteroid belt and to detect its planets with certainty. It’s also one of the many targets of next-generation telescopes, starting with the James Webb space telescope.

The inner and outer parts of the Epsilon Eridani system compared with the corresponding components of our solar system (Image NASA/JPL/Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC))
The inner and outer parts of the Epsilon Eridani system compared with the corresponding components of our solar system (Image NASA/JPL/Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC))

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