Our Solar System was born in chaos. Collisions shaped and built the Earth and the other planets, and even delivered the building blocks of life. Without things smashing into each other, we might not be here.
Thankfully, most of the collisions are in the past, and now our Solar System is a relatively calm place. But frequent collisions still occur in other younger solar systems, and astronomers can see the aftermath.
Most stars will end their lives as white dwarfs. White dwarfs are the remnant cores of once-luminous stars like our Sun, but they’ve left their lives of fusion behind and no longer generate heat. They’re destined to glow with only their residual energy for billions of years before they eventually fade to black.
Could life eke out an existence on a planet huddled up to one of these fading spectres?
The Hubble Space Telescope is like an old dog that is constantly teaching the astronomical community new tricks. In the course of its almost thirty years in operation, it has revealed vital data about the expansion of the Universe, its age, the Milky Way, supermassive black holes (SMBHs), other star systems and exoplanets, and the planets of the Solar System.
Most recently, an international team of researchers using Hubble made a discovery that was not only fascinating but entirely unexpected. In the heart of the spiral galaxy NGC 3147, they spotted a swirling thin disk of gas that was precariously close to a back hole that is about 250 million Solar masses. The find was a complete surprise since the black hole was considered too small to have such a structure around it.
During the 1970s, scientists confirmed that radio emissions coming from the center of our galaxy were due to the presence of a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH). Located about 26,000 light-years from Earth between the Sagittarius and Scorpius constellation, this feature came to be known as Sagittarius A*. Since that time, astronomers have come to understand that most massive galaxies have an SMBH at their center.
What’s more, astronomers have come to learn that black holes in these galaxies are surrounded by massive rotating toruses of dust and gas, which is what accounts for the energy they put out. However, it was only recently that a team of astronomers, using the the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), were able to capture an image of the rotating dusty gas torus around the supermassive black hole of M77.
Like most massive galaxies, M77 has an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), where dust and gas are being accreted onto its SMBH, leading to higher than normal luminosity. For some time, astronomers have puzzled over the curious relationship that exists between SMBHs and galaxies. Whereas more massive galaxies have larger SMBHs, host galaxies are still 10 billion times larger than their central black hole.
This naturally raises questions about how two objects of vastly different scales could directly affect each other. As a result, astronomers have sought to study AGN is order to determine how galaxies and black holes co-evolve. For the sake of their study, the team conducted high-resolution observations of the central region of M77, a barred spiral galaxy located about 47 million light years from Earth.
Using ALMA, the team imaged the area around M77’s center and were able to resolve a compact gaseous structure with a radius of 20 light-years. As expected, the team found that the compact structure was rotating around the galaxies central black hole. As Masatoshi Imanishi explained in an ALMA press release:
“To interpret various observational features of AGNs, astronomers have assumed rotating donut-like structures of dusty gas around active supermassive black holes. This is called the ‘unified model’ of AGN. However, the dusty gaseous donut is very tiny in appearance. With the high resolution of ALMA, now we can directly see the structure.”
In the past, astronomers have observed the center of M77, but no one has been able to resolve the rotating torus at its center until now. This was made possible thanks to the superior resolution of ALMA, as well as the selection of molecular emissions lines. These emissions lines include hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and formyl ions (HCO+), which emit microwaves only in dense gas, and carbon monoxide – which emits microwaves under a variety of conditions.
The observations of these emission lines confirmed another prediction made by the team, which was that the torus would be very dense. “Previous observations have revealed the east-west elongation of the dusty gaseous torus,” said Imanishi. “The dynamics revealed from our ALMA data agrees exactly with the expected rotational orientation of the torus.”
However, their observations also indicated that the distribution of gas around an SMBH is more complicated that what a simple unified model suggests. According to this model, the rotation of the torus would follow the gravity of the black hole; but what Imanishi and his team found indicated that gas and dust in the torus also exhibit signs of highly random motion.
These could be an indication that the AGN at the center of M77 had a violent history, which could include merging with a small galaxy in the past. In short, the team’s observations indicate that galactic mergers may have a significant impact on how AGNs form and behave. In this respect, their observations of M77s torus are already providing clues as to the galaxy’s history and evolution.
The study of SMBHs, while intensive, is also very challenging. On the one hand, the closest SMBH (Sagitarrius A*) is relatively quiet, with only a small amount of gas accreting onto it. At the same time, it is located at the center of our galaxy, where it is obscured by intervening dust, gas and stars. As such, astronomers are forced to look to other galaxies to study how SMBHs and their galaxies co-exist.
And thanks to decades of study and improvements in instrumentation, scientists are beginning to get a clear glimpse of these mysterious regions for the first time. By being able to study them in detail, astronomers are also gaining valuable insight into how such massive black holes and their ringed structures could coexist with their galaxies over time.
The theory of how planets form has been something of an enduring mystery for scientists. While astronomers have a pretty good understanding of where planetary systems comes from – i.e. protoplanetary disks of dust and gas around new stars (aka. “Nebular Theory“) – a complete understanding of how these discs eventually become objects large enough to collapse under their own gravity has remained elusive.
But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers from France, Australia and the UK, it seems that the missing piece of the puzzle may finally have been found. Using a series of simulations, these researchers have shown how “dust traps” – i.e. regions where pebble-sized fragments could collect and stick together – are common enough to allow for the formation of planetesimals.
Until recently, the process by which protoplanetary disks of dust and gas aggregate to form peddle-sized objects, and the process by which planetesimals (objects that are one hundred meters or more in diameter) form planetary cores, have been well understood. But the process that bridges these two – where pebbles come together to form planetesimals – has remained unknown.
Part of the problem has been the fact that the Solar System, which has been our only frame of reference for centuries, formed billions of years ago. But thanks to recent discoveries (3453 confirmed exoplanets and counting), astronomers have had lots of opportunities to study other systems that are in various stages of formation. As Dr. Gonzalez explained in a Royal Astronomical Society press release:
“Until now we have struggled to explain how pebbles can come together to form planets, and yet we’ve now discovered huge numbers of planets in orbit around other stars. That set us thinking about how to solve this mystery.”
In the past, astronomers believed that “dust traps” – which are integral to planet formation – could only exist within certain environments. In these high-pressure regions, large grains of dust are slowed down to the point where they are able to come together. These regions are extremely important since they counteract the two main obstacles to planetary formation, which are drag and high-speed collisions.
Drag is caused by the effect gas has on dust grains, which causes them to slow down and eventually drift into the central star (where they are consumed). As for high-speed collisions, this is what causes large pebbles to smash into each other and break apart, thus reversing the aggregation process. Dust traps are therefore needed to ensure that dust grains are slowed down just enough so that they won’t annihilate each other when they collide.
To see just how common these dust traps were, Dr. Gonzalez and his colleagues conducted a series of computer simulations that took into account how dust in a protoplanetary disk could exert drag on the gas component – a process known as “aerodynamic drag back-reaction”. Whereas gas typically has an arresting influence on dust particles, in particularly dusty rings, the opposite can be true.
This effect has been largely ignored by astronomers up until recently, since its generally quite negligible. But as the team noted, it is an important factor in protoplanetary disks, which are known for being incredibly dusty environments. In this scenario, the effect of back-reaction is to slow inward-moving dust grains and push gas outwards where it forms high-pressure regions – i.e. “dust traps”.
Once they accounted for these effects, their simulations showed how planets form in three basic stages. In the first stage, dust grains grow in size and move inwards towards the central star. In the second, the now pebble-sized larger grains accumulate and slow down. In the third and final stage, the gas is pushed outwards by the back-reaction, creating the dust trap regions where it accumulates.
These traps then allow the pebbles to aggregate to form planetesimals, and eventually planet-sized worlds. With this model, astronomers now have a solid idea of how planetary formation goes from dusty disks to planetesimals coming together. In addition to resolving a key question as to how the Solar System came to be, this sort of research could prove vital in the study of exoplanets.
Ground-based and space-based observatories have already noted the presence of dark and bright rings that are forming in protoplanetary disks around distant stars – which are believed to be dust traps. These systems could provide astronomers with a chance to test this new model, as they watch planets slowly come together. As Dr. Gonzalez indicated:
“We were thrilled to discover that, with the right ingredients in place, dust traps can form spontaneously, in a wide range of environments. This is a simple and robust solution to a long standing problem in planet formation.”
Between the years 2003 and 2011, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher – better known as HARPS – made more than a thousand observations of nearby star, Beta Pictoris. On board the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, the sensitive instrument normally combs the sky nightly in search of exoplanets, but lately it has contributed to another astounding discovery… exocomets!
Located about 63 light-years from the Sun, Beta Pictoris is a youthful star, estimated to be only around 20 million years old. Keeping it company in space is a vast disc of material. This swarm of gas and dust is the beginnings of an active planetary system and was likely created by the destruction of comets and collisions of rocky bodies like asteroids. Now a French team using HARPS has been able to create the most complete catalog of comets to date from this system. Researchers have found no less than five hundred comets belonging to Beta Pictoris and they divide in two unique branches of exocomets. Split into both old and new, these two active flows behave much like our own cometary groups… They have either made many trips around the parent star or are the product of a recent breakup of one or more objects.
Flavien Kiefer (IAP/CNRS/UPMC), lead author of the new study, sets the scene: “Beta Pictoris is a very exciting target! The detailed observations of its exocomets give us clues to help understand what processes occur in this kind of young planetary system.”
Just like discovering planets through the transit method, astronomers believe exocomets can cause a disturbance in the amount of light we can see from a given star. When these icy travelers exhaust themselves, their gas and dust tails could absorb a portion of the star light passing through them. For nearly three decades scientists had been aware of minute changes in the light from Beta Pictoris, but attributing it to comets was next to impossible to prove. Their tiny light was simply overpowered by the light of the star and could not be imaged from Earth.
Using more than a thousand observations taken by this sensitive equipment, astronomers chose a sample of 493 exocomets unrelated to each other, but sharing in the Beta Pictoris system. Of these, some were dutifully followed for hours at several different times. The size and speed of the gas clouds produced were carefully measured. Researchers were even able to document the orbital properties of some of these exocomets – the size and shape of their passage paths in relation to the parent star allowing scientists to infer their distances.
Knowing that comets exist around other stars is very exciting – and knowing that solar systems around other stars work much like our own is downright rewarding. Through this study, we’re able to take a unique look at what might be several hundreds of exocomets connected to a solitary exo-planet system. What the research has revealed is two distinct branches of the comet family tree. One of these is old comets – their orbit dictated by a single, massive planet. The other half of the family fork belongs to comets that might have arisen from the destruction of a larger object.
The older group behaves in a predictable manner. These exocomets have differing orbital patterns, and their gas and dust production is greatly reduced. If they follow the same rules as the ones in our solar system, it’s typical behavior for a comet which has exhausted its volatiles during multiple trips around the parent star and is also being controlled by the system’s massive planet. This is exciting because it confirms the planet’s presence and distance!
“Moreover, the orbits of these comets (eccentricity and orientation) are exactly as predicted for comets trapped in orbital resonance with a massive planet.” says the science team. “The properties of the comets of the first family show that this planet in resonance must be at about 700 million kilometres from the star – close to where the planet Beta Pictoris b was discovered.”
The second group also behaves in a predictable manner. These exocomets have nearly identical orbits and their emissions are active and radical. Observations of this cometary type tell us they more than likely originated from the destruction of a larger body and the rubble is caught in a orbit which allows the fragments to graze Beta Pictoris. According to the research team: “This makes them similar to the comets of the Kreutz family in the Solar System, or the fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which impacted Jupiter in July 1994.”
Flavien Kiefer concludes: “For the first time a statistical study has determined the physics and orbits for a large number of exocomets. This work provides a remarkable look at the mechanisms that were at work in the Solar System just after its formation 4.5 billion years ago.”