In this artist's impression, a disk of dusty material leftover from star formation girds two young stars like a hula hoop.
Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered trio of young, blinking stars surrounded by a dusty "hula-hoop" of stellar leftovers that could form planets one day.
Called YLW 16A, the three-star system cycles through bright and dim phases as the two main stars dance around each other at the center, according to NASA. Light from the main stars occasionally peeks out of the tilted disk that surrounds the entire system, making it seem to "blink" every 93 days, scientists said.
Meanwhile, a third star orbits at the edge of the system outside of the cosmic hula-hoop. Its gravitational forces slightly distort this disk.
Scientists expect that the hoop, which is made up of leftovers from the star formation process, will over time spawn planets and the other celestial bodies typically found in solar systems.
A planet that forms in this system could potentially be a circumbinary planet — one that orbits two stars. In that scenario, the alien world would have a double sunset each night, much like the fictional planet Tatooine in the "Star Wars" films, NASA pointed out in its statement.
The new findings, which have been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, could shed light on the early stages of such planet formation.
"These blinking systems offer natural probes of the binary and circumbinary planet formation process," study researcher Peter Plavchan, a scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute and Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement.
By using Spitzer, astronomers detected infrared light emitted by the system's warmed gas and dusk in the disk. Their findings also drew from observations with the ground-based 2MASS survey and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.
NASA's Spitzer Space Telscope is an infrared observatory that launched on Aug. 25, 2003 and has spent nearly 10 years in space.