Multiple star systems containing two or more stars are extremely common, but astronomers aren't entirely sure how these complex systems are created. The remarkable discovery of an embryonic four-star system is providing some tantalizing clues.

Top image: Artistic impression of what the quadruple system might eventually look like. (NASA/JPL-CAL TECH/UCLA)

The system, a cloud of gas called Barnard 5 (or B5), was analyzed by an international team of researchers using the combined power of the Very Large Array (VLA) and the Green Bank Telescope. Barnard 5 is located about 800 light-years from Earth.

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By mapping the radio emissions produced by methane molecules near a young proto-star, the astronomers were able to detect fragmenting filaments of gas congealing together to form three new stars. Astronomers believe that it's this filamentary process that produces multiple stars, rather than just one.

(NRAO/AUI/NSF)

The scientists say these three dense pockets of matter will gravitationally collapse into stars in about 40,000 years. Which, from a cosmological perspective, is a short time from now.

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The stars will range in size from about one-tenth to one-third the size of our own Sun, and they'll be separated by between 3,000 and 11,000 AU.

Interestingly, computer models suggest this pending quadruple-star system won't remain a foursome for long. Eventually, at least one star will be thrown out, leaving behind a triple-star system. The system will then contain two primary inner stars orbiting around each other, with the third outer star orbiting the pair.

(Stella Offner)

"These kind of multistar systems are quite common in the universe. Think of Tatooine in Star Wars, where there are two 'suns' in the sky," said co-author Gary Fuller in National Geographic News. "That isn't too far away from something that could be a real formation. In fact, nearly half of all stars are in this type of system."

And indeed, back in 2012, amateur astronomers helped to discover a planet with four suns.

The astronomers say the discovery will help them understand why some suns remain single, while most stars are joined by others.

Check out the entire scientific study here.

[ ABC Science | National Geographic News ]