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

Two Comet Groups Discovered Around Beta Pictoris

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.”

Beta Pictoris is located about 60 light-years away towards the constellation of Pictor (the Painter's Easel) and is one of the best-known examples of a star surrounded by a dusty debris disc. Earlier observations showed a warp of the disc, a secondary inclined disc and comets falling onto the star, all indirect, but tell-tale signs that strongly suggested the presence of a massive planet. Observations done with the NACO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in 2003, 2008 and 2009, have proven the presence of a planet around Beta Pictoris. It is located at a distance between 8 and 15 times the Earth-Sun separation — or Astronomical Units — which is about the distance Saturn is from the Sun. The planet has a mass of about nine Jupiter masses and the right mass and location to explain the observed warp in the inner parts of the disc. This image, based on data from the Digitized Sky Survey 2, shows a region of approximately 1.7 x 2.3 degrees around Beta Pictoris.  Credit: ESO/Sky Survey II
Beta Pictoris is located about 60 light-years away towards the constellation of Pictor (the Painter’s Easel) and is one of the best-known examples of a star surrounded by a dusty debris disc. Earlier observations showed a warp of the disc, a secondary inclined disc, and comets falling onto the star, all indirect, but tell-tale signs that strongly suggested the presence of a massive planet. Observations done with the NACO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in 2003, 2008, and 2009, have proven the presence of a planet around Beta Pictoris. It is located at a distance between 8 and 15 times the Earth-Sun separation — or Astronomical Units — which is about the distance Saturn is from the Sun. The planet has a mass of about nine Jupiter masses and the right mass and location to explain the observed warp in the inner parts of the disc. This image, based on data from the Digitized Sky Survey 2, shows a region of approximately 1.7 x 2.3 degrees around Beta Pictoris. Credit: ESO/Sky Survey II

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.

Enter HARPS…

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.”

Original Story Source: “Two Families of Comets Found Around Nearby Star – Biggest census ever of exocomets around Beta Pictoris” – ESO Science News Release