Sweet Sights for November Nights

Clear night ahead? Let’s see what’s up. We’ll start close to home with the Moon, zoom out to lonely Fomalhaut 25 light years away and then return to our own Solar System to track down the 7th planet. Even before the sky is dark, you can’t miss the 4-day-old crescent Moon reclining in the southwestern sky. Watch for it to wax to a half-moon by Thursday as it circles Earth at an average speed of 2,200 mph (3,600 km/hr). That fact that it orbits Earth means that the angle the Moon makes with the sun and our planet constantly varies, the reason for its ever-changing phase.

You'll see two and possibly three lunar "seas" tonight (Nov. 15). Only a portion of Mare Tranquilliitatis (Seas of Tranquility) is exposed. The large crater Janssen, 118 miles wide and 1.8 miles deep, is visible in binoculars. Credit: Virtual Moon Atlas / Legrande and Chevalley
You’ll see two and possibly three lunar “seas” tonight (Nov. 15). Only a portion of Mare Tranquilliitatis (Seas of Tranquility) is exposed. The large crater Janssen, 118 miles wide and 1.8 miles deep, is visible in binoculars. Credit: Virtual Moon Atlas / Legrande and Chevalley

With the naked eye you’ll be able to make two prominent dark patches within the crescent — Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises) and Mare Fecunditatis (Sea of Fecundity). Each is a vast, lava-flooded plain peppered with thousands of craters , most of which require a telescope to see. Not so Janssen. This large, 118-mile-wide (190-km) ring will be easy to pick out in a pair of seven to 10 power binoculars. Janssen is named for 19th century French astronomer Pierre Janssen, who was the first to see the bright yellow line of helium in the sun’s spectrum while observing August 1868 total solar eclipse.

Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, has but one bright star, 1st magnitude Fomalhaut. It shines all by its lonesome in the south around 7 p.m. local time at mid-month. The star is located only 25 light years from Earth. Source: Stellarium
Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, has but one bright star, 1st magnitude Fomalhaut. It shines all by its lonesome in the south around 7 p.m. local time at mid-month. The star is located only 25 light years from Earth. Source: Stellarium

English scientist Norman Lockyer also observed the line later in 1868 and concluded it represented a new solar element which he named “helium” after “helios”, the Greek word for sun. Helium on Earth wouldn’t be discovered for another 10 years, making this party-balloon gas the only element first discovered off-planet!

See the fish now? Greek mythology tells us that Piscis Austrinus is the "Great Fish", the parent of the two fish in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces the Fish. Source: Stellarium
See the fish now? Greek mythology tells us that Piscis Austrinus is the “Great Fish”, the parent of the two fish in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces the Fish. Source: Stellarium

Directing your gaze south around 7 o’clock, you’ll see a single bright star low in the southern sky. This is Fomalhaut in the dim constellation of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. The Arabic name means “mouth of the fish”. If live under a dark, light-pollution-free sky, you’ll be able to make out a loop of faint stars vaguely fish-like in form. Aside from being the only first magnitude star among the seasonal fall constellations, Fomalhaut stands out in another way — the star is ringed by a planet-forming disk of dust and rock much as our own Solar System was more than 4 billion years ago.

The planet Fomalhaut b orbits Fomalhaut inside a circumstellar disk of dust and rock, taking about 1,700 years to orbit. Brilliant Fomalhaut, represented by the small, white dot, has been masked from view, so astronomers could photograph the much fainter disk. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Space Telescope
The planet Fomalhaut b orbits Fomalhaut inside a circumstellar disk of dust and rock, taking about 1,700 years to orbit. Brilliant Fomalhaut, represented by the small, white dot, has been masked from view, so astronomers could photograph the much fainter disk. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Space Telescope

Within that disk is a new planet, Fomalhaut b, with less than twice Jupiter’s mass and enshrouded either by a cloud of dusty debris or a ring system like Saturn. Fomalhaut b has the distinction of being the first extrasolar planet ever photographed in visible light. The plodding planet takes an estimated 1,700 years to make one loop around Fomalhaut, with its distance from its parent star varying from about 50 times Earth’s distance from the sun at closest to 300 times that distance at farthest.

Shoot a diagonal across the Square of Pegasus to 4th magnitude Delta Piscium. Point your binoculars here and slide east to 4th magnitude Epsilon and 2° south to the planet Uranus shines at magnitude +5.7 and can be glimpsed with the naked eye from a dark sky site. Time shown is around 7 p.m. local time. See detailed map below. Source: Stellarium
Shoot a diagonal across the Square of Pegasus to 4th magnitude Delta Piscium. Point your binoculars here and slide east to 4th magnitude Epsilon and 2° south to the planet Uranus shines at magnitude +5.7 and can be glimpsed with the naked eye from a dark sky site. Time shown is around 7 p.m. local time. See detailed map below. Source: Stellarium

Next, we move on to one of the more remote planets in our own solar system, Uranus. The 7th planet from the sun, Uranus reached opposition — its closest to Earth and brightest appearance for the year — only a month ago. It’s well-placed for viewing in Pisces the Fish after nightfall high in the southeastern sky below the prominent sky asterism, the Great Square of Pegasus.

Wide-field binocular view of Uranus' travels now through next April. I've labeled two stars near the planet with their magnitudes - 5.5 and 6.0 - which are similar to Uranus in brightness, so you don't confuse them with the planet. The others are naked eye stars in Pisces. Source: Chris Mariott's SkyMap
Wide-field binocular view of Uranus’ travels now through next April. I’ve labeled several stars near the planet with their magnitudes, which are similar in brightness to Uranus, so you’ll know to tell them apart from the planet. The others are naked eye stars in Pisces. Source: Chris Mariott’s SkyMap

A telescope will tease out its tiny, greenish disk,  but almost any pair of binoculars will easily show the planet as a star-like point of light slowly marching westward against the starry backdrop in the coming weeks. Check in every few weeks to watch it move first west, in retrograde motion, and then turn back east around Christmas. For those with 8-inch and larger telescopes who love a challenge, use this Uranian Moon Finder to track the planet’s two brightest moons, Titania and Oberon, which glimmer weakly around 14th magnitude.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the vacuum with these offerings; they’re just a few of the many highlights of mid-November nights that also include the annual Leonid meteor shower, which peaks Tuesday and Wednesday mornings (Nov. 17-18). So much to see!

Surprise! Fomalhaut’s Kid Sister Has a Debris Disk Too

The bright star Fomalhaut hosts a spectacular debris disk: a dusty circling plane of small objects where planets form. At a mere 25 light-years away, we’ve been able to pinpoint detailed features: from the warm disk close by to the further disk that is comparable to the Solar System’s Kuiper belt.

But Fomalhaut never ceases to surprise us. At first we discovered a planet, Fomalhaut b, which orbits in the clearing between the two disks. Then we discovered that Fomalhaut was not a single star or a double star, but a triplet.  The breaking news today, however, is that we have discovered a mini debris disk around the third star.

Fomalhaut is massive, weighing in at 1.9 times the mass of the Sun. And at such a close distance it’s one of the brightest stars in the southern sky. But its two companions are much smaller. The second star, Fomalhaut B, is 0.7 times the mass of the Sun and the third star, Fomalhaut C, a small red dwarf, is 0.2 times the mass of the Sun.

Fomalhaut C orbits Fomalhaut A at a distance of 2.5 light-years, or roughly half the distance from the Sun to the closest neighboring star.  It was only confirmed to be gravitationally bound to Fomalhaut A and Fomalhaut B in October of last year.

“The disk around Fomalhaut C was a complete surprise,” lead researcher Grant Kennedy of the University of Cambridge told Universe Today. “This is only the second system in which disks around two separate stars have been discovered.”

Relatively cool dust and ice particles are much brighter at long wavelengths, allowing telescopes like the Herschel Space Telescope, to pick up the excess infrared light. However, Herschel has a much poorer resolution than an optical telescope so the image of Fomalhaut C’s disk is not spatially resolved — meaning the brightness of the disk could be measured but not its structure.

Kennedy’s team’s best guess is that the disk is quite cold, around 24 degrees Kelvin and pretty small, orbiting to and extent of 10 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. But it’s likely that it’s similar to Fomalhaut A’s disk in that it’s bright, elliptical, and slightly offset from its host star. All three characteristics suggest that gravitational perturbations may be destabilizing the cometary orbits within the disks.

“As a stellar system Fomalhaut’s gotten very interesting in the last year,” Kennedy said. With two wide companions “it’s not obvious how the configuration came about. Forming one wide companion is not so hard, but getting a second is very unlikely. So we need to come up with a new mechanism.”

Kennedy is currently working on figuring out what exactly this “new mechanism” is and he thinks the debris disk around Fomalhaut C will provide a few helpful hints. His best guess is still under construction but it’s likely that a small star is disturbing the system.

The next step will be to watch the stellar system over the next few years in order to measure their orbits exactly. With precise motions we just might be able to see what is interrupting the system.

“We think these observations will provide a good test of the theory,” Kennedy told Universe Today. They just might “solve the mystery of why the Fomalhaut system looks like it does.”

The paper has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available for download here.

Double Star Fomalhaut May Actually Be A Triplet!

Fomalhaut is a really cool place to study. The naked-eye star (the brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus) has a planet, Fomalhaut b, that once appeared dead but rose again in science circles. It is the site of a comet massacre. Now it’s getting even more interesting: Scientists have believed for years that Fomalhaut is a double star, but a new paper proposes that it is actually a triplet.

“I noticed this third star a couple of years ago when I was plotting the motions of stars in the vicinity of Fomalhaut for another study,” stated Eric Mamajek, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester. The third star is known as LP876-10 or Fomalhaut C.

“However, I needed to collect more data and gather a team of co-authors with different observations to test whether the star’s properties are consistent with being a third member of the Fomalhaut system.”

That opportunity came when Mamajek was in Chile and by chance, talking with Georgia State University’s Todd Henry, who is the director of the Research Consortium on Nearby Stars. A student (who has now graduated), Jennifer Bartlett at the University of Virginia, was working on a study of potential nearby stars for her Ph.D. thesis, which included the star that Mamajek was curious about.

Herschel's far-infrared observations of Fomalhaut and its disk. Credit: ESA
Herschel’s far-infrared observations of Fomalhaut and its disk. Credit: ESA

The team plotted the star’s movements and spectroscopy (to see its temperature and radial velocity) and concluded the speed and distance of the star matched that of the Fomalhaut system.

LP876-10/Fomalhaut C is a red dwarf that appears the distance of 11 full moons apart from Fomalhaut in the night sky. It seems counterintuitive to believe they are close together, but the team reminds us that Fomalhaut is very close to us as stars go: 25 light-years away.

“That they appear so far apart could explain why the connection between LP 876-10 and Fomalhaut had been previously missed,” the team stated.

The paper is available on the preprint website Arxiv and has been accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal.

Source: University of Rochester

On Again, Off Again Exoplanet Fomalhaut b is Back from the Dead

This visible-light image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the vicinity of the star Fomalhaut, including the location of its dust ring and disputed planet, Fomalhaut b. A coronagraphic mask helped dim the star’s brightness. This view combines two 2006 observations that were taken with masks of different sizes (1.8 and 3 arcseconds). (Credit: NASA/ESA/T. Currie, U. Toronto)

Just in time for Halloween, astronomers are bringing an extrasolar planet back from the dead. Another look at the nearby star Fomalhaut reveals that a planet, named Fomalhaut b, is actually, really there, refuting a previous claim against its existence. In 2008, it was announced that a large, Saturn mass planet shepherded a large dust ring and was spotted in visual images from Hubble, and was said to be the first exoplanet ever directly imaged in visible light around another star. But in late 2011 infrared observations called the previous detections into question. A new analysis of data from Hubble, however, brings the planet conclusion back to life.

It’s like a zombie planet that just won’t die.


Fomalhaut is the brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus and lies 25 light-years away.Originally, Fomalhaut b was estimated to be approximately the size of Saturn, and might even have rings. It resides within a debris ring which encircles the star Fomalhaut, located about 25 light-years away from Earth.

Then, later studies claimed that this planetary interpretation is incorrect. Based on the object’s apparent motion and the lack of an infrared detection by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, they argued that the object is a short-lived dust cloud unrelated to any planet.

But still another observation brings this planet back.

“Although our results seriously challenge the original discovery paper, they do so in a way that actually makes the object’s interpretation much cleaner and leaves intact the core conclusion, that Fomalhaut b is indeed a massive planet,” said Thayne Currie, an astronomer formerly at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and now at the University of Toronto.

The discovery study reported that Fomalhaut b’s brightness varied by about a factor of two and cited this as evidence that the planet was accreting gas. Follow-up studies then interpreted this variability as evidence that the object actually was a transient dust cloud instead.

In the new study, Currie and his team reanalyzed Hubble observations of the star from 2004 and 2006. They easily recovered the planet in observations taken at visible wavelengths near 600 and 800 nanometers, and made a new detection in violet light near 400 nanometers. In contrast to the earlier research, the team found that the planet remained at constant brightness.

The team attempted to detect Fomalhaut b in the infrared using the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, but was unable to do so. The non-detections with Subaru and Spitzer imply that Fomalhaut b must have less than twice the mass of Jupiter.

Another contentious issue has been the object’s orbit. If Fomalhaut b is responsible for the ring’s offset and sharp interior edge, then it must follow an orbit aligned with the ring and must now be moving at its slowest speed. The speed implied by the original study appeared to be too fast. Additionally, some researchers argued that Fomalhaut b follows a tilted orbit that passes through the ring plane.

Using the Hubble data, Currie’s team established that Fomalhaut b is moving with a speed and direction consistent with the original idea that the planet’s gravity is modifying the ring.

“What we’ve seen from our analysis is that the object’s minimum distance from the disk has hardly changed at all in two years, which is a good sign that it’s in a nice ring-sculpting orbit,” explained Timothy Rodigas, a graduate student in the University of Arizona and a member of the team.

Currie’s team also addressed studies that interpret Fomalhaut b as a compact dust cloud not gravitationally bound to a planet. Near Fomalhaut’s ring, orbital dynamics would spread out or completely dissipate such a cloud in as little as 60,000 years. The dust grains experience additional forces, which operate on much faster timescales, as they interact with the star’s light.

“Given what we know about the behavior of dust and the environment where the planet is located, we think that we’re seeing a planetary object that is completely embedded in dust rather than a free-floating dust cloud,” said team member John Debes, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.

A paper describing the findings has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

And as we reported in April, another team using the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA) indicated they found evidence of Fomalhaut b, and maybe even more planets in the system, giving more credence to the planet’s exitence.

Because astronomers detect Fomalhaut b by the light of surrounding dust and not by light or heat emitted by its atmosphere, it no longer ranks as a “directly imaged exoplanet.” But because it’s the right mass and in the right place to sculpt the ring, Currie’s team thinks it should be considered a “planet identified from direct imaging.”

Fomalhaut was targeted with Hubble most recently in May by another team. Those observations are currently under scientific analysis and are expected to be published soon.

Read the latest team’s paper.

Source: NASA

New Evidence For Fomalhaut Planets

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The planetary system of the star Fomalhaut has been one of intense debate over the past few years. In 2008, it was announced that a large, Saturn mass planet shepherd a large dust ring and was spotted in visual images from Hubble. But in late 2011 infrared observations called the previous detections into question. Now joining the discussion is the recently completed Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA). This radio observatory suggests that there may be more planets than previously detected.

ALMA sits in the high Atacama desert in northern Chile. This dry location is ideal for linking together the 66 radio dishes (although only 15 were used in the new observations) to give unprecedented resolution. With this new set of eyes, astronomers from the University of Florida and Bryant Space Science Center were able to study the fine details in the dust ring. These details were then compared to various models of how rings should function in different conditions.

The dust ring has several characteristics that any explanation would have to reproduce. The first was that the ring is slightly oval shaped. It must be exceptionally thin and have a sharp cutoff both on the interior and exterior edges. If the previously claimed planet, Fomalhaut b, were the only one present, it could not account for the outer edge of the disk being sharply truncated as well as the inner edge. Another possibility is that the ring is simply newly formed as the result of a collision between two planets and has not yet had time to dissipate giving it the sharp appearance. However, the authors note that planets at such a distance from the parent star shouldn’t have high enough relative velocities to crush them so finely.

Since neither of these explanations are sufficient, the team proposes that there are two planets that shepherd the ring: One interior and one exterior to it. Within our own solar system, we see similar effects in Uranus’ ε ring which is constrained by the moons Cordelia and Ophelia. Similarly, Saturn’s F ring is shepherded by Prometheus and Pandora. By varying the mass of hypothetical planets in the models, the authors could create a ring similar to that seen around Fomalhaut. However, the best fit was created by a pair of planets that were less than three times the mass of the Earth which would mean that the proposed mass for Fomalhaut b was significantly too high, further casting doubt on its existence. Additionally, the proposed orbit of Fomalhaut bwas 10 AU off from the orbit of the hypothetical interior shepherd planet.

Ultimately, these two planets are only hypothetical. Detecting them in a more direct fashion will prove challenging. The fact that their orbits wouldn’t be very close to line of sight as well as their distance from the star would make radial velocity detection impossible. Given the low proposed mass and the distance, they would reflect too little light to be able to be directly observed with current telescopes.

Frantic Comet Massacre Taking Place at Fomalhaut

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There may be some frantic activity going on in the narrow, dusty disk surrounding a nearby star named Fomalhaut. Scientists have been trying to understand the makeup of the disk, and new observations by the Herschel Space Observatory reveals the disk may come from cometary collisions. But in order to create the amount of dust and debris seen around Fomalhaut, there would have to be collisions destroying thousands of icy comets every day.

“I was really surprised,” said Bram Acke, who led a team on the Herschel observations. “To me this was an extremely large number.”

Fomalhaut is a young star, just a few hundred million years old, about 25.1 light years away and twice as massive as the Sun. It is the brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus and one of the brightest stars in our sky, visible in the southern sky in the northern hemisphere in fall and early winter evenings.

Fomalhaut’s toroidal dust belt was discovered in the 1980s by the IRAS satellite. It’s been viewed several times by the Hubble Space Telescope, but Herschel’s new images of the belt show it in much more detail at far-infrared wavelengths than ever before.

The narrow and asymmetrical properties of the disk are thought to be due to the gravity of a possible planet in orbit around the star, but the existence of the planet is still under study.

Hubble's view showing a possible exoplanet Fomalhaut b (NASA/HST)

Acke, from the University of Leuven in Belgium, and his team colleagues analyzed the Herschel observations and found the dust temperatures in the belt to be between –230 and –170 degrees C, and because Fomalhaut is slightly off-center and closer to the southern side of the belt, the southern side is warmer and brighter than the northern side.

Those observations collected starlight scattering off the grains in the belt and showed it to be very faint at Hubble’s visible wavelengths, suggesting that the dust particles are relatively large. But that appears to be incompatible with the temperature of the belt as measured by Herschel in the far-infrared.

While observations with Hubble suggested the grains in the dust disk would be relatively large, the Herschel data show that the dust in the belt has the thermal properties of small solid particles, with sizes of only a few millionths of a meter across. HST observations suggested solid grains more than ten times larger.

To resolve the paradox, Acke and colleagues suggest that the dust grains must be large fluffy aggregates, similar to dust particles released from comets in our own Solar System. These would have both the correct thermal and scattering properties.

However, this leads to another problem.

The bright starlight from Fomalhaut should blow small dust particles out of the belt very rapidly, yet such grains appear to remain abundant there.

So, the only way to explain the contradiction is to resupply the belt through continuous collisions between larger objects in orbit around Fomalhaut, creating new dust.

This isn’t the first time that evidence of cometary collisions have been seen around another star. Last year, astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope detected activity resembling a ‘heavy bombardment’ type of event where icy bodies from the outer solar system are possibly pummeling rocky worlds closer to the star.

At Fomalhaut, however, to sustain the belt, the rate of collisions must be remarkable: each day, the equivalent of either two 10 km-sized comets or 2,000 1 km-sized comets must be completely crushed into small, fluffy dust particles.

In order to keep the collision rate so high, scientists say there must be between 260 billion and 83 trillion comets in the belt, depending on their size. This is not unfathomable, the team says, as our own Solar System has a similar number of comets in its Oort Cloud, which formed from objects scattered from a disc surrounding the Sun when it was as young as Fomalhaut.

“These beautiful Herschel images have provided the crucial information needed to model the nature of the dust belt around Fomalhaut,” said Göran Pilbratt, ESA Herschel Project Scientist.

Source: ESA