When Two Supermassive Black Holes Merge, It’s a Galactic Train Wreck

Most large galaxies harbor central supermassive black holes with masses equivalent to millions, or even billions, of Suns. Some, like the one in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, lie quiet. Others, known as quasars, chow down on so much gas they outshine their host galaxies and are even visible across the Universe.

Although their brilliant light varies across all wavelengths, it does so randomly — there’s no regularity in the peaks and dips of brightness. Now Matthew Graham from Caltech and his colleagues have found an exception to the rule.

Quasar PG 1302-102 shows an unusual repeating light signature that looks like a sinusoidal curve. Astronomers think hidden behind the light are two supermassive black holes in the final phases of a merger — something theoretically predicted but never before seen. If the theory holds, astronomers might be able to witness two black holes en route to a collision of incredible scale.

The light curve combines data from two CRTS telescopes (CSS and MLS) with historical data from the LINEAR and ASAS surveys, and the literature15, 16 (see Methods for details). The error bars represent one standard deviation errors on the photometry values. The red dashed line indicates a sinusoid with period 1,884 days and amplitude 0.14 mag. The uncertainty in the measured period is 88 days. Note that this does not reflect the expected shape of the periodic waveform, which will depend on the physical properties of the system. MJD, modified Julian day. Image Credit: Graham et al.
The light curve combines data from two CRTS telescopes (CSS and MLS) with historical data from the LINEAR and ASAS surveys. Image Credit: Graham et al.

Graham and his colleagues discovered the unusual quasar on a whim. They were aiming to study quasar variability using the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey (CRTS), which uses three ground-based telescopes to monitor some 500 million objects strewn across 80 percent of the sky, when 20 or so periodic sources popped up.

Of those 20 periodic quasars, PG 1302-102 was the most promising. It had a strong signal that appeared to repeat every five years or so. But what causes the repeating signal?

The black holes that power quasars do not emit light. Instead the light originates from the hot accretion disk that feeds the black hole. Orbiting clouds of gas, which are heated and ionized by the disk, also contribute in the form of visible emission lines.

“When you look at the emission lines in a spectrum from an object, what you’re really seeing is information about speed — whether something is moving toward you or away from you and how fast. It’s the Doppler effect,” said study coauthor Eilat Glikman from Middlebury College in Vermont, in a news release. “With quasars, you typically have one emission line, and that line is a symmetric curve. But with this quasar, it was necessary to add a second emission line with a slightly different speed than the first one in order to fit the data. That suggests something else, such as a second black hole, is perturbing this system.”

So a tight supermassive black hole binary is the most likely explanation for this oddly periodic quasar.

“Until now, the only known examples of supermassive black holes on their way to a merger have been separated by tens or hundreds of thousands of light years,” said study coauthor Daniel Stern from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “At such vast distances, it would take many millions, or even billions, of years for a collision and merger to occur. In contrast, the black holes in PG 1302-102 are, at most, a few hundredths of a light year apart and could merge in about a million years or less.”

But astronomers remain unsure about what physical mechanism is responsible for the quasar’s repeating light signal. It’s possible that one quasar is funneling material from its accretion disk into jets, which are rotating like beams from a lighthouse. Or perhaps a portion of the accretion disk itself is thicker than the rest, causing light to be blocked at certain spots in its orbit. Or maybe the accretion disk is dumping material onto the black hole in a regular fashion, causing periodic bursts of energy.

“Even though there are a number of viable physical mechanisms behind the periodicity we’re seeing — either the precessing jet, warped accretion disk or periodic dumping — these are all still fundamentally caused by a close binary system,” said Graham.

Astronomers still don’t have a good handle on what happens in the final few light-years of a black hole merger. And of course these two black holes still won’t collide for thousands to millions of years. Even watching for the period to shorten as they spiral inward would dwarf human timescales. But the discovery of a system so late in the game proves promising for future work.

The results have been published in Nature.

New 3-D-Printed Models of Eta Carinae Reveal Hidden Features

In the constellation of Carina, lies the most luminous and mysterious star system within 10,000 light-years. The two massive stars, better known as Eta Carinae, erupted twice in the 19th Century for reasons astronomers still don’t understand, and are now approaching the point where one might soon detonate as a supernova.

Astronomers from the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society weighed in on this supermassive showoff earlier today. New findings include 3-D printed models that reveal never-before-seen features of the stars’ interactions.

But first, let’s better orient ourselves with this elusive system. The brighter, primary star has about 90 times the mass of the Sun and outshines it five million times. The properties of the smaller, companion star are still hotly contested. Both stars produce powerful gaseous outflows called stellar winds. Although these winds enshroud the stars, blocking all efforts to directly observe them, the gas is hot and dense enough to emit observable X-rays.

The X-ray emission, however, dramatically changes when the stars reach their point of closest approach, or periastron. As the stars approach one another, their X-ray output gradually brightens, reaching a maximum when the stars are as close as Mars is to the Sun. But just past periastron, the X-rays drop suddenly as the companion star quickly moves around the primary star.

Now, a research team has developed a 3-D simulation, looking at 11 years worth of data and three periastron passages, from multiple NASA satellites and ground-based telescopes.

According to the team’s model, the winds from each star have different properties. The primary star’s winds are extremely slow, blowing out at one million miles per hour, while the hotter companion star’s winds are much faster, clocking in at a speed six times greater. The primary star’s winds are also extremely dense, carrying away the equivalent mass of our Sun every thousand years, while the companion’s wind carries off 100 times less material.

But the research team didn’t stop there. “Using a commercial 3-D printer … we have found a way to 3-D print the output from our computer simulations of Eta Car,” said Thomas Madura, also from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “And as far as we are aware these are the world’s first 3-D prints of a supercomputer simulation of a complex astrophysical system.”

The printed model can be separated into two sections: the dense wind from the primary star and the more tenuous wind from the companion star. Slicing the model in half therefore reveals the cavity carved by the companion star’s wind into the primary star’s wind.

“As a result of doing this 3-D printing work, we actually discovered these finger-like protrusions that extend radially out of the spiral wind-wind collision region,” said Madura. “These are features that we didn’t even really know existed” prior to this. They’re likely the result of physical instabilities that arise when the fast wind collides with the slower wind, which is essentially a wall of gas.

Both of the massive stars of Eta Carinae might one day end their lives in supernova explosions. “For stars, mass determines their destiny. But for massive stars, mass loss determines their destiny,” said Michael Corcoran from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Although the stars continue to lose mass at high rates, there is no evidence to suggest an imminent demise of either star.

Prying Planets Out of The Shadows: The Gemini Planet Imager’s First Year of Light

This year marks the 20th anniversary of 51 Peg b, the first exoplanet detected around a Sun-like star. And although the number of sheer detections in the years since have been remarkable, it’s also remarkable how little we still know about these alien worlds, save for their distances from their host stars, their radii, and sometimes their masses.

But the ability to directly image these worlds provides the opportunity to change all that. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Marshall Perrin from the Space Telescope Science Institute in a press conference at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting earlier today. “In the long run, we think that imaging offers perhaps the best path to characterizing rocky planets on Earth-like orbits.”

Perrin highlighted two intriguing results from the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), an instrument designed not only to resolve the dim light of an exoplanet, but also analyze a planet’s atmospheric temperature and composition.

HR 8799

The first system observed with GPI was the well-known HR 8799 system, a large star orbited by four planets, located 130 light-years away. Previously, the Keck telescope had measured the atmosphere of one of the planets, HR 8799c, in six hours of observing time. But GPI matched that in only a half hour of telescope time and in less-than-ideal weather too. So the team quickly turned to the planet’s twin, HR 8799d.

Image credit: Patrick Ingraham (Stanford University), Mark Marley (NASA Ames), Didier Saumon (Los Alamos National Laboratory) and the GPI Team.
The spectra of planets HR 8799c and HR 8799d. Image credit: Patrick Ingraham (Stanford University) / Mark Marley (NASA Ames) / Didier Saumon (Los Alamos National Laboratory) / the GPI Team.

“What we found really surprised us,” said Perrin. “These two planets have been known to have the same brightness and the same broadband colors. But looking at their spectra, they’re surprisingly different.”

Perrin and his colleagues think the likely culprit is clouds. It’s possible that one planet has a uniform cloud cover, whereas the other planet has a more patchy cloud cover, allowing astronomers to see deeper into the atmosphere. Perrin, however, cautions that this explanation is still under interpretation.

“The fact that GPI was able to extract new knowledge from these planets on the first commissioning run in such a short amount of time, and in conditions that it was not even designed to work, is a real testament to how revolutionary GPI will be to the field of exoplanets,” said GPI team member Patrick Ingraham from Stanford University in a news release.

HR 4796A

Perrin’s presentation also introduced never-seen details in the dusty ring around the young star HR 4796A. GPI also has the unique ability of detecting only polarized light, which sheds light on different physical properties.

Although the details are fairly technical, “the short version is that reconciling the patterns we see in polarized intensity and in total intensity has forced us to think of this not as a very diffuse disk but one that is actually dense enough to partially opaque,” said Perrin.

The disk may be roughly analogous to one of Saturn’s rings.

“GPI now is moving into an exciting phase of full operations,” said Perrin, concluding his talk. “We’ll be opening up a lot of new discoveries hopefully over the next few years. And in the long run taking these technologies and scaling them to future 30-meter telescopes, and perhaps large telescopes in space, to continue direct imaging and push down toward the Earth-like planet regime.”

Kepler Targets Supermassive Black Hole

With only an introductory course in science, it’s easy to think that scientists strictly follow the scientific method. They propose a new hypothesis, test that hypothesis, and after many years of hard work, either confirm or reject it. But science is often prone to chance. And when a surprise presents itself, the book titled “Scientific Method 101” often gets dropped in the trash. In short, science needs — and perhaps thrives on — stupid luck.

Take any scientific mission. Often designed to do one thing, a mission tends to open up a remarkable window on something unexpected. Now, NASA’s Kepler space telescope, designed to hunt for planets in our own galaxy, has helped measure an object much more distant and more massive than any of its detected planets: a black hole.

KA1858+4850 is a Seyfert galaxy with an active supermassive black hole feeding on nearby gas. It lies between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra approximately 100 million light-years away.

In 2012, Kepler provided a highly accurate light curve of the galaxy. But the team, led by Liuyi Pei from the University of California, Irvine, also relied on ground-based observations to compliment the Kepler data.

The trick is to look at how the galaxy’s light varies over time. The light first emitted from the accretion disk travels some distance before reaching a gas cloud, where it’s absorbed and re-emitted a short time later.

Measuring the time-delay between the two emitted points of light tells the size of the gap between the accretion disk and the gas cloud. And measuring the width of the emitted light from the gas cloud tells the velocity of the gas moving near the black hole (due to an effect known as Doppler broadening). Together, these two measurements allow astronomers to determine the mass of the supermassive black hole.

Pei and her colleagues measured a time delay of roughly 13 days, and a velocity of 770 kilometers per second. This allowed them to calculate a central black hole mass of roughly 8.06 million times the mass of the Sun.

The results have been published in the Astrophysical Journal and are available online.

Exciting Exoplanet News from AAS: How Rocky Worlds are Made; Oceans on Super-Earths

Artist's depiction of a waterworld. A new study suggests that Earth is in a minority when it comes to planets, and that most habitable planets may be greater than 90% ocean. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Astronomers from around the world gathered in Seattle today for the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Although it’s just past noon on the West Coast, the discoveries are already beginning to unfurl. Here are some of the highlights from this morning’s exoplanet session. And the keyword seems to be “water.”

A Recipe for Earth-like Planets?

There’s no doubt that the term “Earth-like” is a bit of a misnomer. It requires only that a planet is both Earth-size and circles its host star within the habitable zone. It says nothing about the composition of that planet.

Now, Courtney Dressing from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and her colleagues have taken detailed observations of small exoplanets in order to nail down a digestible recipe.

Dressing and her colleagues focused on only a handful of exoplanets because they had to take painstakingly long, but accurate measurements. They used the HARPS-N instrument on the 3.6-meter Telescope in the Canary Islands to precisely determine the planets’ densities.

Most recently the team targeted Kepler-93b, a planet 1.5 times the size of Earth and 4.01 times the mass of Earth. Kepler 93-b, as well as all other exoplanets with sizes less than 1.6 times Earth’s size and six times Earth’s mass, show a tight relationship between size and mass. In other words, when plotted by size vs. mass, they fit onto the same line as Venus and the Earth, suggesting they’re all rocky planets.

Larger and more massive exoplanets do not follow the same trend. Nature simply doesn’t want to make rocky planets that are more massive than six Earth masses. Instead, their densities are significantly lower, meaning their recipes include a large fraction of water or hydrogen and helium.

“Today if you’re not too worn out from all the holiday baking, when you get back home, I’d encourage you to check out this new recipe for rocky planets” said Dressing at the AAS press conference. The playful recipe requires one cup of magnesium, one cup of silicon, two cups of iron, two cups of oxygen, ½ teaspoon aluminum, ½ teaspoon nickel, ½ teaspoon calcium, and ¼ teaspoon sulfur.

Now you have to be patient. “Bake this for a couple million years until you start to see a thin, light brown crust form on the surface of the planet,” said Dressing. Then season it with a dash of water. “If you check back in a couple million years, maybe you’ll see some intelligent life on your planet.”

Super-Earths Have Long Lasting Oceans

Another team of astronomers took a closer look at that dash of water. There’s no doubt that life, as we know it, needs liquid water. The Earth’s oceans cover about 70 percent of the surface and have for nearly the entire history of our world. So the next logical step suggests that for life to develop on other planets, those planets would also need oceans.

Water, however, isn’t just on Earth’s surface. Studies have shown that Earth’s mantle holds several oceans’ worth of water that was dragged underground. If water weren’t able to return to the surface via volcanism, it would disappear entirely.

Laura Schaefer, also from the CfA, used computer simulations to see if this so-called deep water cycle could take place on Earth-like planets and super-Earths.

She found that small Earth-like planets outgas their water quickly, while larger super-Earths form their oceans later on. The sweet spot seems to be for planets between two and four times the mass of Earth, which are even better at establishing and maintaining oceans than our Earth. Once started, these oceans could persist for at least 10 billion years.

“If you want to look for life, you should look at older super-Earths,” said Schaefer. It’s a statement that applies to both realms of research presented today.

The AAS will continue throughout the week. So stay tuned because Universe Today will continue bringing you the highlights.

Why Care About Astronomy?

I need to get something off my chest. A month or so ago I was sitting in a classroom surrounded by 10 peers. For the first time this semester we had the opportunity to spend the entire day discussing astronomy. And I was thrilled to dive into that brilliant subject, which I have adored for most of my 26 years.

But it didn’t take long before the day turned sour. Most of my classmates touched on one common theme: why should we care about astronomy when it has no practical applications? It’s a concern I have seen time and time again from students, museum guests, and readers alike.

So dear world, here is why you should care.

It’s true that astronomy has few practical applications and yet somehow its advances benefit millions of people across the world.

Just as astronomy struggles to see increasingly faint objects, medicine struggles to see things obscured within the human body. So astronomy has developed technology used in CAT scanners and MRIs. It has also developed technology now used by FedEx to track packages, GPS satellites to determine your location, apple to develop a camera for your iPhone, to name a few.

But all of these are mere second thoughts, benefits that have occurred without the primary intention of the maker. And that is what makes astronomy beautiful. To study something — not because we’re looking to gain anything in particular, but out of sheer curiosity — is what makes us human.

Doing things for their own sake creates room for mindfulness and joy. Aristotle makes this point in his Nicomachean Ethics. He says: “the work is the maker in actuality; so he loves his work, because he loves his existence too. And this is a fact of nature; for what he is in potentiality, the work shows in actuality.”

Work itself is inherently valuable and it is somehow connected to our very existence. It stands alone and not as a path toward a paycheck or a practical application. Countless studies show just this. In one famous example, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, both from the University of Rochester, asked two groups of college students to work on various puzzles. One group was paid for each puzzle it solved. The other group wasn’t.

Deci and Ryan found that the group that was paid to solve puzzles quit the second the experiment was over. The other group, however, found the puzzles intrinsically fascinating, and continued to solve the puzzles well after finishing the experiment. The second group found joy in the puzzles even when — and perhaps because — there was no monetary value to gain. There’s mindfulness in the act of work itself.

Then there is the sheer joy of looking up. On the darkest of nights, far from the city lights, thousands of stars are sprinkled from horizon to horizon. We now know there are over one billion stars in our galaxy and over one billion galaxies in our universe. It fills me with such wonder and humility to know our small place in the vast cosmos above us.

I firmly believe that astronomy has a spiritual dimension, maybe not in the sense of a supreme being, but in the sense of how it connects us with something bigger than ourselves. It brings us closer to nature by illuminating the ongoing mysteries in the universe.

Because of astronomy we now know that the Universe sparked into existence 13.7 billion years ago. We’ve spotted shining pinpricks of light in the early universe and know them to be supermassive black holes, with such strong gravitational fields, that matter is raining down onto them. We’ve seen distant galaxies colliding in a swirl of stars, gas and dust. And we’ve spotted thousands of planets orbiting other stars.

We’ve glimpsed the wonders of the universe — both big and small — for others to appreciate. So while astronomy doesn’t set out with the intention of changing our lives on a practical level, it does change our lives. It has explained mysteries that have confounded us for thousands of years, but more crucially, it has opened up more mysteries than any of us can study in our lifetime.

I have to wonder: what human being isn’t compelled to study a discipline that sparks such curiosity and joy?

The Universe’s Tour Guide

The hazy, white horizon lifts away slowly, giving way to the blue and green, cloud-swept marble we call home. I take in a deep breath, astonished by the Earth’s staggering beauty in stark contrast to the sprinkled backdrop.

People are still shuffling into the 429-seat Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, their shadows projected onto the arched ceiling. A voice resonates in the dome’s spacious cavity. Brian Abbott, the planetarium’s assistant director, is welcoming everyone to the show. It’s a “highlights tour,” he says, covering most of the known universe in one fell swoop.

As we leave Earth further behind, the satellites appear, swarming above our planet like bees around a hive. Soon the curved orbits of other planets become visible and we fly toward Mars.

In minutes we are hovering above Valles Marineris, a canyon so massive it would stretch from Manhattan to Los Angeles. The projectors display six-meter resolution data from the Mars Global Surveyor. We see the canyon ridges in such incredible, 3D detail it seems we could reach out and touch the tallest peaks with our fingers.

Abbott’s voice is slow and soothing. He speaks with authority, mindful of every inflection he makes and every word he uses. He carefully constructs his sentences, but also takes the time to crack a few jokes along the way. It’s just another day at the office, and yet it sounds like he’s having the time of his life.

Abbott in his office at AMNH. Credit: Shannon Hall
Abbott in his office at AMNH. Credit: Shannon Hall

Abbott never dreamed of becoming an astronomer. In high school he was on a very different path, headed toward a career in art. Then, in 1985, Halley’s comet was scheduled to appear in the night sky. “For some reason I needed to find it,” he said. So, from his backyard outside Philadelphia, he learned how to pinpoint the constellations and spot distant objects, like galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. When the comet finally came, he was able to spot it, a tiny target in the vast sky. It was a revelation that pumped him full of adrenalin on that long, dark night.

Yet while Abbott left art as a career choice behind, he has been able to integrate art with astronomy, as his planetarium show demonstrates. “I admire the niche he has created for himself in the intersection between art, visualization and science,” said colleague Jana Grcevich, a postdoctoral researcher at AMNH.

Just before starting work at the museum in 1999, however, Abbott was an unhappy graduate student in the astronomy department at the University of Toledo. “Who can explain what gets you out of bed in the morning,” he said. “It just wasn’t what moved me.” Frustrated with his lot in life, he had plans to drive his car across the country, Jack Kerouac style. But first, he attended one last meeting: the American Astronomical Society’s annual conference in Chicago.

There, among all the job listings, he saw only one that wasn’t a research or a faculty position. The AMNH needed someone to create the world’s first interactive atlas of the Universe. So Abbott started sniffing around and coincidentally ran into the planetarium’s famed director, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in the hallway of their hotel. Yet “Neil wasn’t Neil back then,” Abbott recalled. “He was somewhat known but he wasn’t mobbed with people.”

The duo started talking, and in two weeks Abbott found himself living in New York City with a new job. But he doesn’t regret it for a second. “I feel like I’m almost divorced from the night sky living here. I’m not able to just go out in my backyard and set up a telescope and see stuff. But we have this great dome. And I can go in there and see the entire Universe far better than I can see in the night sky.”

Now, Abbott spends his days visualizing large data sets. For the past 14 years, he has been creating a three-dimensional map of the Universe. He’s constantly updating the atlas with recent data hot off the world’s biggest telescopes and best satellites. And in the planetarium, he turns this abstract data into the planets, stars and galaxies that visitors flock to see. “What we want to do is focus on the scientific story of the universe,” said Abbott. “And we want that reflected in our dome.”

As the Hayden Planetarium’s popularity suggests, there’s a surprising public appetite for such strict scientific cartography. “There’s always at least one time in the show when the air comes out of the room,” said Abbott, referring to the moment when the audience takes a collective breath, in awe of the universe above them.

I can recall easily when that moment came for me. We had just left the Milky Way galaxy. Looking back on our home galaxy, the bright yellow core was surrounded by gorgeous blue spiral arms and sweeping dust lanes. Swarms of smaller galaxies began to appear. In minutes, we saw the Tully Catalogue, which covers an astonishing 30,000 galaxies in total.

The audience gasped in awe at the sheer number of galaxies in our local neighborhood. It’s impossible not to feel small at a moment like that.

But we were nowhere near the farthest reaches of the Universe yet. In moments, we saw the total number of galaxies ever recorded in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. A chill ran down my spine. There were over one million galaxies projected onto the dome. Each one has over 100 billion stars. And each one of those likely has 5 or even ten planets. There are so many opportunities for life in our vast Universe.

We continued to zoom out, until we reached the edges of the 46.6 billion-light-year-wide observable Universe. In just over an hour, the tour had grossly violated the speed of light. “So that’s the Universe,” Abbott said. “Any questions?”

What’s Next for the Large Hadron Collider?

The world’s most powerful particle collider is waking up from a well-earned rest. After roughly two years of heavy maintenance, scientists have nearly doubled the power of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in preparation for its next run. Now, it’s being cooled to just 1.9 degrees above absolute zero.

“We have unfinished business with understanding the universe,” said Tara Shears from the University of Liverpool in a news release. Shears and other LHC physicists will work to better understand the Higgs Boson and hopefully unravel some of the secrets of supersymmetry and dark matter.

On February 11, 2013 the LHC shut down for roughly two years. The break, known as LS1 for “long stop one,” was needed to correct several flaws in the original design of the collider.

The LHC’s first run got off to a rough start in 2008. Shortly after it was fired up, a single electrical connection triggered an explosion, damaging an entire sector (one-eighth) of the accelerator. To protect the accelerator from further disaster, scientists decided to run it at half power until all 10,000 copper connections could be repaired.

So over the last two years, scientists have worked around the clock to rework every single connection in the accelerator.

Now that the step (along with many others) is complete, the collider will operate at almost double its previous power. This was tested early last week, when scientists powered up the magnets of one sector to the level needed to reach the high energy expected in its second run.

“The machine that’s now being started up is almost a new LHC,” said John Womersley, the Chief Executive Officer of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

With such a powerful new tool, scientists will look for deviations from their initial detection of the Higgs boson, potentially revealing a deeper level of physics that goes well beyond the Standard Model of particle physics.

Many theorists have turned to supersymmetry — the idea that for every known fundamental particle there exists a “supersymmetric” partner particle. If true, the enhanced LHC could be powerful enough to create supersymmetric particles themselves or prove their existence in subtler ways.

“The higher energy and more frequent proton collisions in Run 2 will allow us to investigate the Higgs particle in much more detail,” said Victoria Martin from Edinburgh University. “Higher energy may also allow the mysterious “dark matter” observed in galaxies to be made and studied in the lab for the first time.”

It’s possible that the Higgs could interact with — or even decay into — dark matter particles. If the latter occurs, then the dark matter particles would fly out of the LHC without ever being detected. But their absence would be evident.

So stay turned because these issues might be resolved in the spring of 2015 when the particle accelerator roars back to life.

Pluto-like Objects Turn to Dust Around a Nearby Young Star

A planetary system’s early days readily tell of turmoil. Giant planets are swept from distant birthplaces into sizzling orbits close to their host star. Others are blasted away from their star into the darkness of space. And smaller bodies, like asteroids and comets, are being traded around constantly.

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have seen the latter: swarms of Pluto-size objects turning to dust around a young star. And the image is remarkable.

“This system offers us the chance to study an intriguing time around a young, Sun-like star,” said coauthor Stuartt Corder and ALMA Deputy Director in a news release. “We are possibly looking back in time here, back to when the Sun was about 2 percent of its current age.”

The young star, HD 107146, is located roughly 90 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices. Although the star itself is visible in any small telescope, ALMA can probe the star’s radically faint protoplanetary disk. This is the star’s dusty cocoon that coalesces into planets, comets and asteroids.

ALMA’s image revealed an unexpected bump in the number of millimeter-size dust grains far from the host star. This highly concentrated band spans roughly 30 to 150 astronomical units, the equivalent of Neptune’s orbit around the Sun to four times Pluto’s orbit.

So where is the extra dust coming from?

Typically, dust in the debris disk is simply left over material from the formation of planets. Early on, however, Pluto-size objects (otherwise known as planetesimals) will collide and blast themselves apart, also contributing to the dust. Certain models predict that this leads to a much higher concentration of dust in the most distant regions of the disk.

Although this is the case for HD 107146, “this is the opposite of what we see in younger primordial disks where the dust is denser near the star,” said lead author Luca Ricci from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It is possible that we caught this particular debris disk at a stage in which Pluto-size planetesimals are forming right now in the outer disk while other Pluto-size bodies have already formed closer to the star.”

Adding to this hypothesis is the fact that there’s a slight depression in the dust at 80 astronomical units, or twice Pluto’s average distance from the Sun. This could be a slight gap in the dust, where an Earth-size planet is sweeping the area clear of a debris disk.

If true, this would be the first observation of an Earth-size planet forming so far from its host star. But for now that’s a big if.

The results will be published in the Astrophysical Journal and are available online.

Chaotic Wombs May Birth Wrong-way Planets

We’ve heard it time and time again. When it comes to new exoplanet findings, our conventional wisdom never holds. So the surprise that a batch of extrasolar planets are moving retrograde, orbiting in directions opposite to the way their stars are spinning, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Then again, maybe it should. These discoveries turned the long-standing view of how planets form on its head. Now Eduard Vorobyov at the University of Vienna and colleagues argue that chaotic conditions in the planetary system’s gaseous wombs may be to blame.

Theorists have long assumed that stars and their planetary companions assemble from spinning disks of gas and dust. This causes the star to spin in one direction, while its planetary companions follow suit. “In some fundamental sense, the cloud carries a ‘genetic code’ that obligates the formation of corotating stars and planets,” Vorobyov told Universe Today.

So how do these wrong-way exoplanets get out of whack? Some theorists have postulated that the gravitational tugs from neighbors might change their direction of rotation. But this is pretty difficult for massive planets.

So Vorobyov and his colleagues took a second look at the initial clouds in which stars and their corotating planets form. Initially, astronomers thought that clouds evolve in relative isolation. Recent simulations, however, suggest that “clouds form within a turbulent environment and move like bees in a hive from one place to another,” said Vorobyov.

So a moving cloud might end up in an environment that’s quite different from the one it had at birth. It could even find itself surrounded by gas that’s swirling opposite to its spin.

Vorobyov and colleagues ran simulations that place clouds into environments with various characteristics. Sure enough when a gas cloud is surrounded by gas that’s swirling in the opposite direction, the inner disk continues to rotate in the same direction of the star, but the outer disk flips and starts to rotate in the opposite direction.

Over time, grains glom together in both disks until they ultimately form planets. Any inner planets will rotate with the star and any outer planets will rotate opposite the star.

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tauri
ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tauri. Image Credit: ALMA / ESO / NOAJ / NRAO / NSF

But there are a few interesting byproducts. The first is that there’s a gap between the two counter-rotating disks. So whenever we see gaps in protoplanetary disks (like the one ALMA spotted a few weeks ago), these gaps might not be the result of a forming planet, but instead a null space between two counter-rotating disks.

The second is that the outer disk produces shock waves, which can trigger early planet formation. “The idea that planets would naturally form in the first very short (100,000 to 400,000 years) lifetime of the protostar would be profound, even if some of the planets were later destroyed,” expert Joel Green from the University of Texas told Universe Today.

This stands in contrast to the idea that planets collect their mass from collisions. It’s a process that astronomers think takes millions of years. But Green isn’t completely convinced by the simulations just yet as there seems to be no physical reason for the outer disks to end up counter rotating.

It all really comes down to the question of nature vs. nurture. “In some philosophical sense, the nurture (external environment) may completely change the nature of planet-forming disks,” said Vorobyov.

The results will be published in Astronomy & Astrophysics and are available online.