Simulated View of a Newly Forming Planetary System with Rings and Gaps

When searching for extra-solar planets, astronomers most often rely on a number of indirect techniques. Of these, the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry) and the Radial Velocity Method (aka. Doppler Spectroscopy) are the two most effective and reliable (especially when used in combination). Unfortunately, direct imaging is rare since it is very difficult to spot a faint exoplanet amidst the glare of its host star.

However, improvements in radio interferometers and near-infrared imaging has allowed astronomers to image protoplanetary discs and infer the orbits of exoplanets. Using this method, an international team of astronomers recently captured images of a newly-forming planetary system. By studying the gaps and ring-like structures of this system, the team was able to hypothesize the possible size of an exoplanet.

The study, titled “Rings and gaps in the disc around Elias 24 revealed by ALMA “, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team was led by Giovanni Dipierro, an astrophysicist from the University of Leicester, and included members from the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Joint ALMA Observatory, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy, and multiple universities and research institutes.

Artist’s impression of circumstellar disc of debris around a distant star. Credit: NASA/JPL

In the past, rings of dust have been identified in many protoplanetary systems, and their origins and relation to planetary formation are the subject of much debate. On the one hand, they might be the result of dust piling up in certain regions, of gravitational instabilities, or even variations in the optical properties of the dust. Alternately, they could be the result of planets that have already developed, which cause the dust to dissipate as they pass through it.

As Dipierro and his colleagues explained in their study:

“The alternative scenario invokes discs that are dynamically active, in which planets have already formed or are in the act of formation. An embedded planet will excite density waves in the surrounding disc, that then deposit their angular momentum as they are dissipated. If the planet is massive enough, the exchange of angular momentum between the waves created by the planet and the disc results in the formation of a single or multiple gaps, whose morphological features are closely linked to the local disc conditions and the planet properties.”

For the sake of their study, the team used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) Cycle 2 observations – which began back in June of 2014. In so doing, they were able to image the dust around Elias 24 with a resolution of about 28 AU (i.e. 28 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun). What they found was evidence of gaps and rings that could be an indication of an orbiting planet.

From this, they constructed a model of the system that took into account the mass and location of this potential planet and how the distribution and density of dust would cause it to evolve. As they indicate in their study, their model reproduces the observations of the dust ring quite well, and predicted the presence of a Jupiter-like gas giant within forty-four thousand years:

“We find that the dust emission across the disc is consistent with the presence of an embedded planet with a mass of ?0.7?MJ at an orbital radius of ? 60?au… The surface brightness map of our disc model provides a reasonable match to the gap- and ring-like structures observed in Elias 24, with an average discrepancy of ?5?per?cent of the observed fluxes around the gap region.”

Thie sharpest image ever taken by ALMA showing the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star HL Tauri. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)


These results reinforce the conclusion that the gaps and rings that have been observed in a wide variety of young circumstellar discs indicate the presence of orbiting planets. As the team indicated, this is consistent with other observations of protoplanetary discs, and could help shed light on the process of planetary formation.

“The picture that is emerging from the recent high resolution and high sensitivity observations of protoplanetary discs is that gap and ring-like features are prevalent in a large range of discs with different masses and ages,” they conclude. “New high resolution and high fidelity ALMA images of dust thermal and CO line emission and high quality scattering data will be helpful to find further evidences of the mechanisms behind their formation.”

One of the toughest challenges when it comes to studying the formation and evolution of planets is the fact that astronomers have been traditionally unable to see the processes in action. But thanks to improvements in instruments and the ability to study extra-solar star systems, astronomers have been able to see system’s at different points in the formation process.

This in turn is helping us refine our theories of how the Solar System came to be, and may one day allow us to predict exactly what kinds of systems can form in young star systems.

Further Reading: CfA, MNRAS

Hubble Sees a Huge Dust Cloud Around a Newly Forming Star

Younger stars have a cloud of dusty debris encircling them, called a circumstellar disk. This disk is material left over from the star’s formation, and it’s out of this material that planets form. But scientists using the Hubble have been studying an enormous dust structure some 150 billion miles across. Called an exo-ring, this newly imaged structure is much larger than a circumstellar disk, and the vast structure envelops the young star HR 4796A and its inner circumstellar disk.

Discovering a dust structure around a young star is not new, and the star in this new paper from Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona is probably our most (and best) studied exoplanetary debris system. But Schneider’s paper, along with capturing this new enormous dust structure, seems to have uncovered some of the interplay between the bodies in the system that has previously been hidden.

Schneider used the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on the Hubble to study the system. The system’s inner disk was already well-known, but studying the larger structure has revealed more complexity.

The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a vast, complex dust structure surrounding the star HR 4769A. The bright, inner ring is well-known to astronomers, but the huge dust structure surrounding the whole system is a new discovery. Image: NASA/ESA/G. Schneider (Univ. of Arizona)

The origin of this vast structure of dusty debris is likely collisions between newly forming planets within the smaller inner ring. Outward pressure from the star HR 4769A then propelled the dust outward into space. The star is 23 times more luminous than our Sun, so it has the necessary energy to send the dust such a great distance.

A press release from NASA describes this vast exo-ring structure as a “donut-shaped inner tube that got hit by a truck.” It extends much further in one direction than the other, and looks squashed on one side. The paper presents a couple possible causes for this asymmetric extension.

It could be a bow wave caused by the host star travelling through the interstellar medium. Or it could be under the gravitational influence of the star’s binary companion (HR 4796B), a red dwarf star located 54 billion miles from the primary star.

“The dust distribution is a telltale sign of how dynamically interactive the inner system containing the ring is'” – Glenn Schneider, University of Arizona, Tucson.

The asymmetrical nature of the vast exo-structure points to complex interactions between all of the stars and planets in the system. We’re accustomed to seeing the radiation pressure from the host star shape the gas and dust in a circumstellar disk, but this study presents us with a new level of complexity to account for. And studying this system may open a new window into how solar systems form over time.

Artist’s impression of circumstellar disk of debris around a distant star. These disk are common around younger stars, but the star in this study has a massive dust cloud that envelops and dwarfs the smaller, inner ring. Credit: NASA/JPL

“We cannot treat exoplanetary debris systems as simply being in isolation. Environmental effects, such as interactions with the interstellar medium and forces due to stellar companions, may have long-term implications for the evolution of such systems. The gross asymmetries of the outer dust field are telling us there are a lot of forces in play (beyond just host-star radiation pressure) that are moving the material around. We’ve seen effects like this in a few other systems, but here’s a case where we see a bunch of things going on at once,” Schneider further explained.

The paper suggests that the location and brightness of smaller rings within the larger dust structure places constraints on the masses and orbits of planets within the system, even when the planets themselves can’t be seen. But that will require more work to determine with any specificity.

This paper represents a refinement and advancement of the Hubble’s imaging capabilities. The paper’s author is hopeful that the same methods using in this study can be used on other similar systems to better understand these larger dust structures, how they form, and what role they play.

As he says in the paper’s conclusion, “With many, if not most, technical challenges now understood and addressed, this capability should be used to its fullest, prior to the end of the HST mission, to establish a legacy of the most robust images of high-priority exoplanetary debris systems as an enabling foundation for future investigations in exoplanetary systems science.”

Debris Disks Around Stars Could Point the Way to Giant Exoplanets

According to current estimates, there could be as many as 100 billion planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. Unfortunately, finding evidence of these planets is tough, time-consuming work. For the most part, astronomers are forced to rely on indirect methods that measure dips in a star’s brightness (the Transit Method) of Doppler measurements of the star’s own motion (the Radial Velocity Method).

Direct imaging is very difficult because of the cancelling effect stars have, where their brightness makes it difficult to spot planets orbiting them. Luckily a new study led by the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at Caltech has determined that there may be a shortcut to finding exoplanets using direct imaging. The solution, they claim, is to look for systems with a circumstellar debris disk, for they are sure to have at least one giant planet.

The study, titled “A Direct Imaging Survey of Spitzer Detected Debris Disks: Occurrence of Giant Planets in Dusty Systems“, recently appeared in The Astronomical Journal. Tiffany Meshkat, an assistant research scientist at IPAC/Caltech, was the lead author on the study, which she performed while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher.

A circumstellar disk of debris around a mature stellar system could indicate the presence of Earth-like planets. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of circumstellar disk of debris around a distant star. Credit: NASA/JPL

For the sake of this study, Dr. Meshkat and her colleagues examined data on 130 different single-star systems with debris disks, which they then compared to 277 stars that do not appear to host disks. These stars were all observed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and were all relatively young in age (less than 1 billion years). Of these 130 systems, 100 had previously been studied for the sake of finding exoplanets.

Dr. Meshkat and her team then followed up on the remaining 30 systems using data from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. While they did not detect any new planets in these systems, their examinations helped characterize the abundance of planets in systems that had disks.

What they found was that young stars with debris disks are more likely to also have giant exoplanets with wide orbits than those that do not. These planets were also likely to have five times the mass of Jupiter, thus making them “Super-Jupiters”. As Dr. Meshkat explained in a recent NASA press release, this study will be of assistance when it comes time for exoplanet-hunters to select their targets:

“Our research is important for how future missions will plan which stars to observe. Many planets that have been found through direct imaging have been in systems that had debris disks, and now we know the dust could be indicators of undiscovered worlds.”

This artist’s conception shows how collisions between planetesimals can create additional debris. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This study, which was the largest examination of stars with dusty debris disks, also provided the best evidence to date that giant planets are responsible for keeping debris disks in check. While the research did not directly resolve why the presence of a giant planet would cause debris disks to form, the authors indicate that their results are consistent with predictions that debris disks are the products of giant planets stirring up and causing dust collisions.

In other words, they believe that the gravity of a giant planet would cause planestimals to collide, thus preventing them from forming additional planets. As study co-author Dimitri Mawet, who is also a JPL senior research scientist, explained:

“It’s possible we don’t find small planets in these systems because, early on, these massive bodies destroyed the building blocks of rocky planets, sending them smashing into each other at high speeds instead of gently combining.”

Within the Solar System, the giant planets create debris belts of sorts. For example, between Mars and Jupiter, you have the Main Asteroid Belt, while beyond Neptune lies the Kuiper Belt. Many of the systems examined in this study also have two belts, though they are significantly younger than the Solar System’s own belts – roughly 1 billion years old compared to 4.5 billion years old.

Artist’s impression of Beta Pictoris b. Credit: ESO L. Calçada/N. Risinger (

One of the systems examined in the study was Beta Pictoris, a system that has a debris disk, comets, and one confirmed exoplanet. This planet, designated Beta Pictoris b, which has 7 Jupiter masses and orbits the star at a distance of 9 AUs – i.e. nine times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This system has been directly imaged by astronomers in the past using ground-based telescopes.

Interestingly enough, astronomers predicted the existence of this exoplanet well before it was confirmed, based on the presence and structure of the system’s debris disk. Another system that was studied was HR8799, a system with a debris disk that has two prominent dust belts. In these sorts of systems, the presence of more giant planets is inferred based on the need for these dust belts to be maintained.

This is believed to be case for our own Solar System, where 4 billion years ago, the giant planets diverted passing comets towards the Sun. This resulted in the Late Heavy Bombardment, where the inner planets were subject to countless impacts that are still visible today. Scientists also believe that it was during this period that the migrations of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune deflected dust and small bodies to form the Kuiper Belt and Asteroid Belt.

Dr. Meshkat and her team also noted that the systems they examined contained much more dust than our Solar System, which could be attributable to their differences in age. In the case of systems that are around 1 billion years old, the increased presence of dust could be the result of small bodies that have not yet formed larger bodies colliding. From this, it can be inferred that our Solar System was once much dustier as well.

Artist’s concept of the multi-planet system around HR 8799, initially discovered with Gemini North adaptive optics images. Credit: Gemini Observatory/Lynette Cook”

However, the authors note is also possible that the systems they observed – which have one giant planet and a debris disk – may contain more planets that simply have not been discovered yet. In the end, they concede that more data is needed before these results can be considered conclusive. But in the meantime, this study could serve as an guide as to where exoplanets might be found.

As Karl Stapelfeldt, the chief scientist of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Office and a co-author on the study, stated:

“By showing astronomers where future missions such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have their best chance to find giant exoplanets, this research paves the way to future discoveries.”

In addition, this study could help inform our own understanding of how the Solar System evolved over the course of billions of years. For some time, astronomers have been debating whether or not planets like Jupiter migrated to their current positions, and how this affected the Solar System’s evolution. And there continues to be debate about how the Main Belt formed (i.e. empty of full).

Last, but not least, it could inform future surveys, letting astronomers know which star systems are developing along the same lines as our own did, billions of years ago. Wherever star systems have debris disks, they an infer the presence of a particularly massive gas giant. And where they have a disk with two prominent dust belts, they can infer that it too will become a system containing many planets and and two belts.

Further Reading: NASA, The Astrophysical Journal

Hubble Spots Possible Exocomets in Nearby Star System

The Hubble Space Telescope is a workhorse which, despite its advanced years, keeps on producing valuable scientific data. In addition to determining the rate at which the Universe is expanding, spotting very distant galaxies, and probing the early history of the Universe, it has also observed some truly interesting things happening in nearby star systems.

For example, Hubble recently spotted some unusual activity in HD 172555, a star system located about 95 light-years from Earth. Here, Hubble obtained spectral information that indicated the presence of comets that appeared to be falling into the star. This could prove useful to scientists who are looking to understand how comets behaved during the early history of the Solar System.

These findings were presented at the 229th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), which has been taking place this past week in Grapevine, Texas. During the course of the presentation, Dr. Carol Grady of Eureka Scientific Inc. and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, shared Hubble data that hinted at the presence of infalling comets, a finding which could bolster theories about what is known as “gravitational stirring”.

Artist’s concept of a collision that is believed to have taken place in the HD 172555 star system between a moon-sized object and a Mercury-sized planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Basically, this theory states that the presence of a Jupiter-size planet in a star system will lead to comets being deflected by its massive gravity, thus sending them into the star. This phenomena is associated with younger stars, and is believed to have taken place in our own Solar System billions of years ago – which also led to number of comets being diverted towards Earth.

The detection of infalling comets in this system (and the way it bolsters the theory of gravitational stirring) is of imminence significant, since it is believed that it was this very mechanism that transported water to Earth when it was quite young. By observing how comets behave around young stars like HD 172555, which is estimated to be around 40 million years old, astronomers are able to see just how this mechanism could work.

As Carol Grady explained in a Hubble press release:

“Seeing these sun-grazing comets in our solar system and in three extrasolar systems means that this activity may be common in young star systems. This activity at its peak represents a star’s active teenage years. Watching these events gives us insight into what probably went on in the early days of our solar system, when comets were pelting the inner solar system bodies, including Earth. In fact, these star-grazing comets may make life possible, because they carry water and other life-forming elements, such as carbon, to terrestrial planets.”

And while exocomets are far too small to be observed directly, the research team – which included members from the European Space Agency, the Kapteyn Institute, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the University of Colorado – were able to discern their presence in 2015 using data obtained by Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS).

Artist’s concept of circumstellar disk of debris, which the HD 172555 star system is known to have. Credit: NASA

Over the course of six days of observation, Hubble’s instruments detected silicon and carbon gas in the ultraviolet wavelength. The source of these gases also appeared to be moving at a speed of over 579,360 km (360,000 mph) across the face of the star. The only viable explanation for this was that they were spotting trails of gas as they evaporated from comets as they made their way across the system’s debris disk and closer to the star.

This is not the first time that exocomets have been seen transiting HD 172555. In 2004 and 2011, similar detections were made by the European Southern Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph. On those occasions, HARPS detected spectra that indicated the presence of calcium, which was seen as evidence that comet-like objects were falling into the star.

Dr. Grady and her team followed up on this by conducting their own spectral analysis of the system. By viewing HD 172555 and its debris disk in ultraviolet light, they were able to discern the presence of silicon and carbon. This was made easier thanks to the fact that HD 172555’s debris disk is viewed close to edge-on, which gives the telescope a clear view of any comet activity taking place within it.

Dr. Grady admits that there are still some uncertainties with their study. For instance, it is not entirely clear whether the objects they observed were comets or asteroids. Though the behavior is consistent with comets, more data on their particular compositions will be needed before they can be sure.

But in the meantime, it is compelling evidence for how comets behaved during the early history of the Solar System. And it may lend weight to the debate about how water originated on Earth, which is also central to determining how and where life may emerge in other parts of the Universe.

Further Reading: Hubble Space Telescope

It’s Complicated: Hubble Survey Finds Unexpected Diversity in Dusty Discs Around Nearby Stars

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have completed the largest and most sensitive visible-light imaging survey of the debris disks surrounding nearby stars. These dusty disks, likely created by collisions between leftover objects from planet formation, were imaged around stars as young as 10 million years old and as mature as more than 1 billion years old.

The research was conducted by astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Center with the help of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory. The survey was led by Glenn Schneider, the results of which appeared in the Oct. 1, 2014, issue of The Astronomical Journal.

“We find that the systems are not simply flat with uniform surfaces,” Schneider said. “These are actually pretty complicated three-dimensional debris systems, often with embedded smaller structures. Some of the substructures could be signposts of unseen planets.”

In addition to learning much about the debris fields that surround neighboring stars, the study presented an opportunity to learn more about the formation of our own Solar System.

“It’s like looking back in time to see the kinds of destructive events that once routinely happened in our solar system after the planets formed,” said Schneider.

Once thought to be flat disks, the study revealed an unexpected diversity and complexity of dusty debris structures surrounding the observed stars. This strongly suggest they are being gravitationally affected by unseen planets orbiting the star.

Alternatively, these effects could result from the stars’ passing through interstellar space. In addition, the researchers discovered that no two “disks” of material surrounding stars were alike.

A circumstellar disk of debris around a matured stellar system may indicate that Earth-like planets lie within. Credit: NASA/JPL
A circumstellar disk of debris around a matured stellar system may indicate that Earth-like planets lie within. Credit: NASA/JPL

The astronomers used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to study 10 previously discovered circumstellar debris systems, plus MP Mus, a mature protoplanetary disk that is comparable in age to the youngest of the debris disks.

Irregularities observed in one ring-like system in particular (around HD 181327) resemble the ejection of a huge spray of debris into the outer part of the system from the recent collision of two bodies.

“This spray of material is fairly distant from its host star — roughly twice the distance that Pluto is from the Sun,” said co-investigator Christopher Stark of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “Catastrophically destroying an object that massive at such a large distance is difficult to explain, and it should be very rare. If we are in fact seeing the recent aftermath of a massive collision, the unseen planetary system may be quite chaotic.”

Another interpretation for the irregularities is that the disk has been mysteriously warped by the star’s passage through interstellar space, directly interacting with unseen interstellar material. “Either way, the answer is exciting,” Schneider said. “Our team is currently analyzing follow-up observations that will help reveal the true cause of the irregularity.”

Over the past few years astronomers have found an incredible diversity in the architecture of exoplanetary systems. For instance, they have found that planets are arranged in orbits that are markedly different than found in our solar system.

A collision between planets could be the reason for the debris field around HD 181327. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A collision between two bodies is one explanation for the ring-like debris system around HD 181327. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We are now seeing a similar diversity in the architecture of accompanying debris systems,” Schneider said. “How are the planets affecting the disks, and how are the disks affecting the planets? There is some sort of interdependence between a planet and the accompanying debris that might affect the evolution of these exoplanetary debris systems.”

From this small sample, the most important message to take away is one of diversity, Schneider said. He added that astronomers really need to understand the internal and external influences on these systems – such as stellar winds and interactions with clouds of interstellar material – and how they are influenced by the mass and age of the parent star, and the abundance of heavier elements needed to build planets.

Though astronomers have found nearly 4,000 exoplanet candidates since 1995, mostly by indirect detection methods, only about two dozen light-scattering, circumstellar debris systems have been imaged over that same time period.

That’s because the disks are typically 100,000 times fainter than (and often very close to) their bright parent stars. The majority have been seen because of Hubble’s ability to perform high-contrast imaging, in which the overwhelming light from the star is blocked to reveal the faint disk that surrounds the star.

The new imaging survey also yields insight into how our solar system formed and evolved 4.6 billion years ago. In particular, the suspected planet collision seen in the disk around HD 181327 may be similar to how the Earth-Moon system formed, as well as the Pluto-Charon system over 4 billion years ago. In those cases, collisions between planet-sized bodies cast debris that then coalesced into a companion moon.

Further Reading: The Hubble Site