New Technique Finds Water in Exoplanet Atmospheres

As more and more exoplanets are identified and confirmed by various observational methods, the still-elusive “holy grail” is the discovery of a truly Earthlike world… one of the hallmarks of which is the presence of liquid water. And while it’s true that water has been identified in the thick atmospheres of “hot Jupiter” exoplanets before, a new technique has now been used to spot its spectral signature in yet another giant world outside our solar system — potentially paving the way for even more such discoveries.

Researchers from Caltech, Penn State University, the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Arizona, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have teamed up in an NSF-funded project to develop a new way to identify the presence of water in exoplanet atmospheres.

Previous methods relied on specific instances such as when the exoplanets — at this point all “hot Jupiters,” gaseous planets that orbit closely to their host stars — were in the process of transiting their stars as viewed from Earth.

This, unfortunately, is not the case for many extrasolar planets… especially ones that were not (or will not be) discovered by the transiting method used by observatories like Kepler.

Watch: Kepler’s Universe: More Planets in Our Galaxy Than Stars

So the researchers turned to another method of detecting exoplanets: radial velocity, or RV. This technique uses visible light to watch the motion of a star for the ever-so-slight wobble created by the gravitational “tug” of an orbiting planet. Doppler shifts in the star’s light indicate motion one way or another, similar to how the Doppler effect raises and lowers the pitch of a car’s horn as it passes by.

The two Keck 10-meter domes atop Mauna Kea. (Rick Peterson/WMKO)
The two Keck 10-meter domes atop Mauna Kea. (Rick Peterson/WMKO)

But instead of using visible wavelengths, the team dove into the infrared spectrum and, using the Near Infrared Echelle Spectrograph (NIRSPEC) at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, determined the orbit of the relatively nearby hot Jupiter tau Boötis b… and in the process used its spectroscopy to identify water molecules in its sky.

“The information we get from the spectrograph is like listening to an orchestra performance; you hear all of the music together, but if you listen carefully, you can pick out a trumpet or a violin or a cello, and you know that those instruments are present,” said Alexandra Lockwood, graduate student at Caltech and first author of the study. “With the telescope, you see all of the light together, but the spectrograph allows you to pick out different pieces; like this wavelength of light means that there is sodium, or this one means that there’s water.”

Previous observations of tau Boötis b with the VLT in Chile had identified carbon monoxide as well as cooler high-altitude temperatures in its atmosphere.

Now, with this proven IR RV technique, the atmospheres of exoplanets that don’t happen to cross in front of their stars from our point of view can also be scrutinized for the presence of water, as well as other interesting compounds.

“We now are applying our effective new infrared technique to several other non-transiting planets orbiting stars near the Sun,” said Chad Bender, a research associate in the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and a co-author of the paper. “These planets are much closer to us than the nearest transiting planets, but largely have been ignored by astronomers because directly measuring their atmospheres with previously existing techniques was difficult or impossible.”

Once the next generation of high-powered telescopes are up and running — like the James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch in 2018 — even smaller and more distant exoplanets can be observed with the IR method… perhaps helping to make the groundbreaking discovery of a planet like ours.

“While the current state of the technique cannot detect earthlike planets around stars like the Sun, with Keck it should soon be possible to study the atmospheres of the so-called ‘super-Earth’ planets being discovered around nearby low-mass stars, many of which do not transit,” said Caltech professor of cosmochemistry and planetary sciences Geoffrey Blake. “Future telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will enable us to examine much cooler planets that are more distant from their host stars and where liquid water is more likely to exist.”

The findings are described in a paper published in the February 24, 2014 online version of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Read more in this Caltech news article by Jessica Stoller-Conrad.

Sources: Caltech and EurekAlert press releases.

Runaway Star Shocks the Galaxy!

That might seem like a sensational headline worthy of a supermarket tabloid but, taken in context, it’s exactly what’s happening here!

The bright blue star at the center of this image is a B-type supergiant named Kappa Cassiopeiae, 4,000 light-years away. As stars in our galaxy go it’s pretty big — over 57 million kilometers wide, about 41 times the radius of the Sun. But its size isn’t what makes K Cas stand out — it’s the infrared-bright bow shock it’s creating as it speeds past its stellar neighbors at a breakneck 1,100 kilometers per second.

K Cas is what’s called a runway star. It’s traveling very fast in relation to the stars around it, possibly due to the supernova explosion of a previous nearby stellar neighbor or companion, or perhaps kicked into high gear during a close encounter with a massive object like a black hole.

As it speeds through the galaxy it creates a curved bow shock in front of it, like water rising up in front of the bow of a ship. This is the ionized glow of interstellar material compressed and heated by K Cas’ stellar wind. Although it looks like it surrounds the star pretty closely in the image above, the glowing shockwave is actually about 4 light-years out from K Cas… slightly less than the distance from the Sun to Proxima Centauri.

The bow shock of Zeta Ophiuchi, another runaway star observed by Spitzer (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The bow shock of Zeta Ophiuchi, another runaway star observed by Spitzer (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Although K Cas is visible to the naked eye, its bow shock isn’t. It’s only made apparent in infrared wavelengths, which NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is specifically designed to detect. Some other runaway stars have brighter bow shocks — like Zeta Ophiuchi at right — which can be seen in optical wavelengths (as long as they’re not obscured by dust, which Zeta Oph is.)

Related: Surprise! IBEX Finds No Bow ‘Shock’ Outside our Solar System

The bright wisps seen crossing K Cas’ bow shock may be magnetic filaments that run throughout the galaxy, made visible through interaction with the ionized gas. In fact bow shocks are of particular interest to astronomers precisely because they help reveal otherwise invisible features and allow deeper investigation into the chemical composition of stars and the regions of the galaxy they are traveling through. Like a speeding car on a dark country road, runaway stars’ bow shocks are — to scientists — like high-beam headlamps lighting up the space ahead.

Runaway stars are not to be confused with rogue stars, which, although also feel the need for speed, have been flung completely out of their home galaxies.

Source: NASA

Our Galaxy’s Supermassive Black Hole is a Sloppy Eater

Like most galaxies, our Milky Way has a dark monster in its middle: an enormous black hole with the mass of 4 million Suns inexorably dragging in anything that comes near. But even at this scale, a supermassive black hole like Sgr A* doesn’t actually consume everything that it gets its gravitational claws on — thanks to the Chandra X-ray Observatory, we now know that our SMB is a sloppy eater and most of the material it pulls in gets spit right back out into space.

(Perhaps it should be called the Cookie Monster in the middle.*)

New Chandra images of supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*, located about 26,000 light-years from Earth, indicate that less than 1% of the gas initially within its gravitational grasp ever reaches the event horizon. Instead, much of the gas is ejected before it gets near the event horizon and has a chance to brighten in x-ray emissions.

The new findings are the result of one of the longest campaigns ever performed with Chandra, with observations made over 5 weeks’ time in 2012.

Read more: Chandra Stares Deep into the Heart of Sagittarius A*

“This new Chandra image is one of the coolest I’ve ever seen,” said study co-author Sera Markoff of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “We’re watching Sgr A* capture hot gas ejected by nearby stars, and funnel it in towards its event horizon.”

As it turns out, the wholesale ejection of gas is necessary for our resident supermassive black hole to capture any at all. It’s a physics trade-off.

“Most of the gas must be thrown out so that a small amount can reach the black hole”, said co-author Feng Yuan of Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China. “Contrary to what some people think, black holes do not actually devour everything that’s pulled towards them. Sgr A* is apparently finding much of its food hard to swallow.”

X-ray image of Sgr A*
X-ray image of Sgr A*

If it seems odd that such a massive black hole would have problems slurping up gas, there are a couple of reasons for this.

One is pure Newtonian physics: to plunge over the event horizon, material captured — and subsequently accelerated — by a black hole must first lose heat and momentum. The ejection of the majority of matter allows this to occur.

The other is the nature of the environment in the black hole’s vicinity. The gas available to Sgr A* is very diffuse and super-hot, so it is hard for the black hole to capture and swallow it. Other more x-ray-bright black holes that power quasars and produce huge amounts of radiation have much cooler and denser gas reservoirs.

Illustration of gas cloud G2 approaching Sgr A* (ESO/MPE/M.Schartmann/J.Major)
Illustration of gas cloud G2 approaching Sgr A* (ESO/MPE/M.Schartmann/J.Major)

Located relatively nearby, Sgr A* offers scientists an unprecedented view of the feeding behaviors of such an exotic astronomical object. Currently a gas cloud several times the mass of Earth, first spotted in 2011, is moving closer and closer to Sgr A* and is expected to be ripped apart and partially consumed in the coming weeks. Astronomers are eagerly awaiting the results.

“Sgr A* is one of very few black holes close enough for us to actually witness this process,” said Q. Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who led the study.

Watch Black Holes: Monsters of the Cosmos

Source: Chandra press release. Read the team’s paper here.

Image credits: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI


*Any resemblance of Sgr A* to an actual Muppet, real or fictitious, is purely coincidental.

A Mega-Merger of Massive Galaxies Caught in the Act

Even though the spacecraft has exhausted its supply of liquid helium coolant necessary to observe the infrared energy of the distant Universe, data collected by ESA’s Herschel space observatory are still helping unravel cosmic mysteries — such as how early elliptical galaxies grew so large so quickly, filling up with stars and then, rather suddenly, shutting down star formation altogether.

Now, using information initially gathered by Herschel and then investigating closer with several other space- and ground-based observatories, researchers have found a “missing link” in the evolution of early ellipticals: an enormous star-sparking merging of two massive galaxies, caught in the act when the Universe was but 3 billion years old.

It’s been a long-standing cosmological conundrum: how did massive galaxies form in the early Universe? Observations of distant large elliptical galaxies full of old red stars (and few bright, young ones) existing when the Universe was only a few billion years old just doesn’t line up with how such galaxies were once thought to form — namely, through the gradual accumulation of many smaller dwarf galaxies.

But such a process would take time — much longer than a few billion years. So another suggestion is that massive elliptical galaxies could have been formed by the collision and merging of large galaxies, each full of gas, dust, and new stars… and that the merger would spark a frenzied formation of even more stars.

Investigation of a bright region first found by Herschel, named HXMM01, has identified such a merger of two galaxies, 11 billion light-years distant.

The enormous galaxies are linked by a bridge of gas and each has a stellar mass of about 100 billion Suns — and they are spawning new stars at the incredible rate of about 2,000 a year.

“We’re looking at a younger phase in the life of these galaxies — an adolescent burst of activity that won’t last very long,” said Hai Fu of the University of California at Irvine, lead author of a new study describing the results.

ESA's Herschel telescope used liquid helium to keep cool while it observed heat from the early Universe
ESA’s Herschel telescope used liquid helium to keep cool while it observed heat from the early Universe
Hidden behind vast clouds of cosmic dust, it took the heat-seeking eyes of Herschel to even spot HXMM01.

“These merging galaxies are bursting with new stars and completely hidden by dust,” said co-author Asantha Cooray, also of the University of California at Irvine. “Without Herschel’s far-infrared detectors, we wouldn’t have been able to see through the dust to the action taking place behind.”

Herschel first spotted the colliding duo in images taken with longer-wavelength infrared light, as shown in the image above on the left side. Follow-up observations from many other telescopes helped determine the extreme degree of star-formation taking place in the merger, as well as its incredible mass.

The image at right shows a close-up view, with the merging galaxies circled. The red data are from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Submillimeter Array atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and show dust-enshrouded regions of star formation. The green data, taken by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array, near Socorro, N.M., show carbon monoxide gas in the galaxies. In addition, the blue shows starlight.

Although the galaxies in HXMM01 are producing thousands more new stars each year than our own Milky Way does, such a high star-formation rate is not sustainable. The gas reservoir contained in the system will be quickly exhausted, quenching further star formation and leading to an aging population of low-mass, cool, red stars — effectively “switching off” star formation, like what’s been witnessed in other early ellipticals.

Dr. Fu and his team estimate that it will take about 200 million years to convert all the gas into stars, with the merging process completed within a billion years. The final product will be a massive red and dead elliptical galaxy of about 400 billion solar masses.

The study is published in the May 22 online issue of Nature.

Read more on the ESA Herschel news release here, as well as on the NASA site here. Also, check out an animation of the galactic merger below:

Main image credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UC Irvine/STScI/Keck/NRAO/SAO

Cassini Says “Senkyo Very Much”

In this image acquired on January 5, Cassini’s near-infrared vision pierced Titan’s opaque clouds to get a glimpse of the dark dune fields across a region called Senkyo.

The vast sea of dunes is composed of solid hydrocarbon particles that have precipitated out of Titan’s atmosphere. Also visible over Titan’s southern pole are the rising clouds of the recently-formed polar vortex.

For a closer look at Titan’s dunes (and to find out what the name Senkyo means) keep reading…

In the image above north on Titan is up and rotated 18 degrees to the right. It was taken using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 938 nanometers.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 750,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Titan.

Titan’s hydrocarbon dunes are found across the moon in a wide swath within 30 degrees of the equator and are each about a kilometer wide and tens to hundreds of kilometers long… and in some cases stand over 100 meters tall. (Source: Astronomy Now.)

Titan dunes Jan 2007
Radar image of Titan’s dunes acquired on Jan. 13, 2007. This view is 160 kilometers (100 miles) high by 150 kilometers (90 miles) wide. (NASA/JPL)

Observations of the dunes with Cassini and ESA’s Huygens probe during its descent onto Titan’s surface have shown that the moon experiences seasonally-shifting equatorial winds during equinoxes, similar to what occurs over the Indian Ocean between monsoon seasons.

The name Senkyo refers to the Japanese realm of serenity and freedom from wordly cares and death… in line with the IAU convention of naming albedo features on Titan after mythological enchanted places.

Click here for an earlier view of Senkyo, and follow the Cassini mission here.

Color-composite of Titan made from raw Cassini images acquired on April 13, 2013 (added 4/17) NASA/JPL/SSI. Composite by J. Major.
Color-composite of Titan made from raw Cassini images acquired on April 13, 2013 (added 4/17) NASA/JPL/SSI. Composite by J. Major.

Lighting Up Andromeda’s Coldest Rings

Cold rings of dust are illuminated in this image taken by Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) instrument. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Schulz (NHSC)

Looking wispy and delicate from 2.5 million light-years away, cold rings of dust are seen swirling around the Andromeda galaxy in this new image from the Herschel Space Observatory, giving us yet another fascinating view of our galaxy’s largest neighbor.

The colors in the image correspond to increasingly warmer temperatures and concentrations of dust — blue rings are warmer, while pinks and reds are colder lanes of dust only slightly above absolute zero. Dark at shorter wavelengths, these dust rings are revealed by Herschel’s amazing sensitivity to the coldest regions of the Universe.

The image above shows data only from Herschel’s SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver) instrument; below is a mosaic made from SPIRE as well as the Photodetecting Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) instrument:

In this new view of the Andromeda galaxy from the Herschel space observatory, cool lanes of forming stars are revealed in the finest detail yet.

 “Cool Andromeda” Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE Consortium, O. Krause, HSC, H. Linz

Estimated to be 200,000 light-years across — almost double the width of the Milky Way — Andromeda (M31) is home to nearly a trillion stars, compared to the 200–400 billion that are in our galaxy. And within these cold, dark rings of dust even more stars are being born… Andromeda’s star-making days are far from over.

Read more: Star Birth and Death in the Andromeda Galaxy

Herschel’s mission will soon be coming to an end as the telescope runs out of the liquid helium coolant required to keep its temperatures low enough to detect such distant heat signatures. This is expected to occur sometime in February or March.

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes, and with important participation by NASA. Launched May 14, 2009, the telescope orbits the second Lagrange point of the Earth-Sun system (L2), located 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) from Earth. Read more from the Herschel mission here.

So. Many. Stars…

Infrared image of globular cluster 47 Tucanae (NGC 104) captured by ESO’s VISTA telescope.

“My god, it’s full of stars!” said Dave Bowman in the movie 2010 as he entered the monolith, and one could imagine that the breathtaking view before him looked something like this.

Except this isn’t science fiction, it’s reality — this is an image of globular cluster 47 Tucanae taken by the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. It reveals in stunning detail a brilliant collection of literally millions of stars, orbiting our Milky Way galaxy at a distance of 15,000 light-years.

The full image can be seen below.

eso1302a (1)

47 Tucanae (also known as NGC 104) is located in the southern constellation Tucana. It’s bright enough to be seen without a telescope and, even though it’s very far away for a naked-eye object, covers an area about the size of the full Moon.

In reality the cluster is 124 light-years across.

Although globular clusters like 47 Tucanae are chock-full of stars — many of them very old, even as stars go — they are noticeably lacking in clouds of gas and dust. It’s thought that all the gaseous material has long since condensed to form stars, or else has been blown away by radiation and outbursts from the cluster’s exotic inhabitants.

At the heart of 47 Tucanae lie many curious objects like powerful x-ray sources, rapidly-spinning pulsars, “vampire” stars that feed on their neighbors, and strange blue stragglers — old stars that somehow manage to stay looking young. (You could say that a globular cluster is the cosmic version of a trashy reality show set in Beverly Hills.)

Red giants can be seen surrounding the central part of the cluster, old bloated stars that are running out of fuel, their outer layers expanding.

vista-survey-telescopeThe background stars in the image are part of the Small Magellanic Cloud, which was in the distance behind 47 Tucanae when this image was taken.

VISTA is the world’s largest telescope dedicated to mapping the sky in near-infrared wavelengths. Located at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, VISTA is revealing new views of the southern sky. Read more about the VISTA survey here.

Image credit: ESO/M.-R. Cioni/VISTA Magellanic Cloud survey. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Combining Light to Reveal Monster Black Holes

NGC 3627 glows in the combined light of Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer and the Very Large Telescope in this image. Astronomers conducted a survey of 62 galaxies, including NGC 3627 to study monster black holes at their centers.

It’s not just pretty, it’s science. Like a starry watercolor, astronomers combining light from Earth and space-based observatories found 37 new supermassive black hole candidates lurking in nearby galaxies.

Included in that survey is NGC 3627 pictured above. Astronomers combined X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope. The other images give the galaxy context but it’s the ghostly blue images from Chandra that show super bright in the X-ray images; X-ray light powered by material falling into a monster black hole.

Gas and dust slowly spins around the black hole creating a flattened disk, or accretion disk. As material falls inward, it heats up and releases large amounts of energy that shine brightly in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum.

NGC 3627, located about 30 million light-years from Earth, was just one of a survey of 62 nearby galaxies using archived data from Chandra and data from the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxy Survey. Of those, 37 galaxies contained bright X-ray sources, indicating active black holes at their cores. Scientists believe that seven of those sources are new supermassive black hole candidates.

The paper describing the survey results was published in the April 10, 2011 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Combining ultraviolet and infrared observations confirm previous Chandra results that found that there may be many more galaxies powered by monster black holes than believed previously through optical surveys. Scientists say in the paper that low-levels of black hole activity previously may have been hidden by dust or washed out by the bright light of the galaxy.

Image caption: Bright X-ray sources glow a ghostly blue in this image in NGC 3627 from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. A study confirms previous Chandra results that indicate that more galaxies powered by monster black holes populate the cosmos.

Source: Chandra X-ray Observatory website

The Brightest Galaxies in the Universe Were Invisible… Until Now

Hubble images of six of the starburst galaxies first found by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory (Keck data shown below each in blue)

Many of the brightest, most actively star-forming galaxies in the Universe were actually undetectable by Earth-based observatories, hidden from view by thick clouds of opaque dust and gas. Thanks to ESA’s Herschel space observatory, which views the Universe in infrared, an enormous amount of these “starburst” galaxies have recently been uncovered, allowing astronomers to measure their distances with the twin telescopes of Hawaii’s W.M. Keck Observatory. What they found is quite surprising: at least 767 previously unknown galaxies, many of them generating new stars at incredible rates.

Although nearly invisible at optical wavelengths these newly-found galaxies shine brightly in far-infrared, making them visible to Herschel, which can peer through even the densest dust clouds. Once astronomers knew where the galaxies are located, they were able to target them with Hubble and, most importantly, the two 10-meter Keck telescopes — the two largest optical telescopes in the world.

By gathering literally hundreds of hours of spectral data on the galaxies with the Keck telescopes, estimates of their distances could be determined as well as their temperatures and how often new stars are born within them.

“While some of the galaxies are nearby, most are very distant; we even found galaxies that are so far that their light has taken 12 billion years to travel here, so we are seeing them when the Universe was only a ninth of its current age,” said Dr. Caitlin Casey, Hubble fellow at the UH Manoa Institute for Astronomy and lead scientist on the survey. “Now that we have a pretty good idea of how important this type of galaxy is in forming huge numbers of stars in the Universe, the next step is to figure out why and how they formed.”

A representation of the distribution of nearly 300 starbursts in one 1.4 x 1.4 degree field of view.

The galaxies, many of them observed as they were during the early stages of their formation, are producing new stars at a rate of 100 to 500 a year — with a mass equivalent of several thousand Suns — hence the moniker “starburst” galaxy. By comparison the Milky Way galaxy only births one or two Sun-mass stars per year.

The reason behind this explosion of star formation in these galaxies is unknown, but it’s thought that collisions between young galaxies may be the cause.

Another possibility is that galaxies had much more gas and dust during the early Universe, allowing for much higher star formation rates than what’s seen today.

“It’s a hotly debated topic that requires details on the shape and rotation of the galaxies before it can be resolved,” said Dr. Casey.

Still, the discovery of these “hidden” galaxies is a major step forward in understanding the evolution of star formation in the Universe.

“Our study confirms the importance of starburst galaxies in the cosmic history of star formation. Models that try to reproduce the formation and evolution of galaxies will have to take these results into account.”

– Dr. Caitlin Casey, Hubble fellow at the UH Manoa Institute for Astronomy

“For the first time, we have been able to measure distances, star formation rates, and temperatures for a brand new set of 767 previously unidentified galaxies,” said Dr. Scott Chapman, a co-author on the studies. “The previous similar survey of distant infrared starbursts only covered 73 galaxies. This is a huge improvement.”

The papers detailing the results were published today online in the Astrophysical Journal.

Sources: W.M. Keck Observatory article and ESA’s news release.

Image credits: ESA–C. Carreau/C. Casey (University of Hawai’i); COSMOS field: ESA/Herschel/SPIRE/HerMES Key Programme; Hubble images: NASA, ESA. Inset image courtesy W. M. Keck Observatory.

Here There Be Planets: Stellar Disk Gap May Reveal Newborn Worlds

HiCIAO near-infrared image of the protoplanetary disk around PDS 70. The circular mask hides the star itself, as well as a smaller internal disk structure. (Credit: NAOJ)

Over the past couple of decades astronomers have figured out several methods for finding planets around other stars in our galaxy. Some have revealed their presence by the slight “wobble” they impart to their host stars as they orbit, while others have been discovered as they pass in front of their stars from our perspective, briefly dimming the light we see.

Now, some astronomers think they may have identified the presence of multiple planets, based on a large gap found in the disk of  gas and dust surrounding a Sun-like star 460 light-years from Earth.

Using the High Contrast Instrument for the Subaru Next Generation Adaptive Optics (HiCIAO) mounted on Japan’s 8.2-meter optical-infrared Subaru telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, an international team of astronomers targeted PDS 70, a young star (10 million years old) about the same mass as the Sun located 460 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus.

The near-infrared observations made by HiCIAO reveal a protoplanetary disk surrounding PDS 70. This disk is composed of gas and dust and extends billions of miles out from the star. Quite literally the stuff that planets are made of, it’s a disk much like this that our solar system likely started out as over 4.6 billion years ago.

“Thanks to the powerful combination of the Subaru Telescope and HiCIAO, we are able to probe the disks around Sun-like stars. PDS 70 shows how our solar system may have looked in its infancy. I want to continue this kind of research to understand the history of planetary formation.”

– Team Leader Jun Hashimoto (NAOJ)

Within PDS 70’s disk are several large gaps positioned at varying distances from the star itself, appearing as dark regions in the near-infrared data. These gaps — especially the largest, located about 70 AU from the star — are thought to be the result of newly-formed planets having cleared the surrounding space of dust and smaller material. It’s also believed that multiple planets may be present since, according to the team, “no single planet, regardless of how heavy or efficient it is in its formation, is sufficient to create such a giant gap.”

In addition to the large disk structure and outer gap, PDS 70 also has a smaller disk located only 1 AU away. (This disk is obscured by the HiCIAO mask in the image above.)

Further observations will be needed to locate any actual exoplanets directly, since the light from the star and scattered light within the disk makes it difficult — if not impossible with current technology — to detect the incredibly faint light reflected by planets.

Still, it’s fascinating to come across what may very well be a solar system in its infancy, giving us a glimpse back in time to our own formation.

“Direct imaging of planets in the process of forming in protoplanetary disks would be ideal so that we can learn when, where, and how planets form,” said team leader Ruobing Dong of Princeton University.

Read more on the NAOJ website for the Subaru Observatory here.

The goal of the Strategic Exploration of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru (SEEDS) Project is to study the disks around less massive stars like the Sun.

Inset image: Artist’s rendition of PDS 70 and its two protoplanetary disks (NAOJ)