Mars Was Hit By a Lot of Protoplanets Early in its History, Taking Longer to Form than Previously Thought.

Scientists developed this illustration of how early Mars may have looked, showing signs of liquid water, large-scale volcanic activity and heavy bombardment from planetary projectiles. SwRI is modeling how these impacts may have affected early Mars to help answer questions about the planet’s evolutionary history. Image Credit: SwRI/Marchi

There are around 61,000 meteorites on Earth, or at least that’s how many have been found. Out of those, about 200 of them are very special: they came from Mars. And those 200 meteorites have been important clues to how Mars formed in the early Solar System.

Continue reading “Mars Was Hit By a Lot of Protoplanets Early in its History, Taking Longer to Form than Previously Thought.”

Planets Started Out From Dust Clumping Together. Here’s How

Artist depiction of a protoplanetary disk permeated by magnetic fields. Objects in the foregrounds are millimeter-sized rock pellets known as chondrules. Credit: Hernán Cañellas

According to the most widely accepted theory of planet formation (the Nebular Hypothesis), the Solar System began roughly 4.6 billion years ago from a massive cloud of dust and gas (aka. a nebula). After the cloud experienced gravitational collapse at the center, forming the Sun, the remaining gas and dust fell into a disk that orbited it. The planets gradually accreted from this disk over time, creating the system we know today.

However, until now, scientists have wondered how dust could come together in microgravity to form everything from stars and planets to asteroids. However, a new study by a team of German researchers (and co-authored by Rutgers University) found that matter in microgravity spontaneously develops strong electrical charges and stick together. These findings could resolve the long mystery of how planets formed.

Continue reading “Planets Started Out From Dust Clumping Together. Here’s How”

New Ring of Dust Discovered in the Inner Solar System

An illustration of the dust rings around the Sun. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith
An illustration of the dust rings around the Sun. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

Discovering new things in space is a regular occurrence. Astronomers keep finding more distant objects in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Worlds like ‘The Goblin,’ ‘FarOut,’ and ‘FarFarOut‘ are stretching the limits of what our Solar System actually is.

But finding new things in the inner Solar System is rare.

Continue reading “New Ring of Dust Discovered in the Inner Solar System”

Here are 20 Protoplanetary Disks, With Newly Forming Planets Carving Out Gaps in the Gas and Dust

ALMA's high-resolution images of nearby protoplanetary disks, which are results of the Disk Substructures at High Angular Resolution Project (DSHARP). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), S. Andrews et al.; NRAO/AUI/NSF, S. Dagnello

The hunt for other planets in our galaxy has heated up in the past few decades, with 3869 planets being detected in 2,886 systems and another 2,898 candidates awaiting confirmation. Though the discovery of these planets has taught scientists much about the kinds of planets that exist in our galaxy, there is still much we do not know about the process of planetary formation.

To answer these questions, an international team recently used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to conduct the first large-scale, high-resolution survey of protoplanetary disks around nearby stars. Known as the Disk Substructures at High Angular Resolution Project (DSHARP), this program yielded high-resolution images of 20 nearby systems where dust and gas was in the process of forming new planets.

Continue reading “Here are 20 Protoplanetary Disks, With Newly Forming Planets Carving Out Gaps in the Gas and Dust”

This Meteorite is One of the Few Remnants from a Lost Planet that was Destroyed Long Ago

This photos shows a very thing slice of the meteorite in the study. The meteorite, called the Almahata Sitta ureilite, crashed in Sudan's Nubian Desert 2008. Photo: (Hillary Sanctuary/EPFL via AP)

What if our Solar System had another generation of planets that formed before, or alongside, the planets we have today? A new study published in Nature Communications on April 17th 2018 presents evidence that says that’s what happened. The first-generation planets, or planet, would have been destroyed during collisions in the earlier days of the Solar System and much of the debris swept up in the formation of new bodies.

This is not a new theory, but a new study brings new evidence to support it.

The evidence is in the form of a meteorite that crashed into Sudan’s Nubian Desert in 2008. The meteorite is known as 2008 TC3, or the Almahata Sitta meteorite. Inside the meteorite are tiny crystals called nanodiamonds that, according to this study, could only have formed in the high-pressure conditions within the growth of a planet. This contrasts previous thinking around these meteorites which suggests they formed as a result of powerful shockwaves created in collisions between parent bodies.

“We demonstrate that these large diamonds cannot be the result of a shock but rather of growth that has taken place within a planet.” – study co-author Philippe Gillet

Models of planetary formation show that terrestrial planets are formed by the accretion of smaller bodies into larger and larger bodies. Follow the process long enough, and you end up with planets like Earth. The smaller bodies that join together are typically between the size of the Moon and Mars. But evidence of these smaller bodies is hard to find.

One type of unique and rare meteorite, called a ureilite, could provide the evidence to back up the models, and that’s what fell to Earth in the Nubian Desert in 2008. Ureilites are thought to be the remnants of a lost planet that was formed in the first 10 million years of the Solar System, and then was destroyed in a collision.

Ureilites are different than other stony meteorites. They have a higher component of carbon than other meteorites, mostly in the form of the aforementioned nanodiamonds. Researchers from Switzerland, France and Germany examined the diamonds inside 2008 TC3 and determined that they probably formed in a small proto-planet about 4.55 billion years ago.

Philippe Gillet, one of the study’s co-authors, had this to say in an interview with Associated Press: “We demonstrate that these large diamonds cannot be the result of a shock but rather of growth that has taken place within a planet.”

According to the research presented in this paper, these nanodiamonds were formed under pressures of 200,000 bar (2.9 million psi). This means the mystery parent-planet would have to have been as big as Mercury, or even Mars.

The key to the study is the size of the nanodiamonds. The team’s results show the presence of diamond crystals as large as 100 micrometers. Though the nanodiamonds have since been segmented by a process called graphitization, the team is confident that these larger crystals are there. And they could only have been formed by static high-pressure growth in the interior of a planet. A collision shock wave couldn’t have done it.

This is what’s called a High-Angle Annular Dark-Field (HAADF) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) image. The image on the left shows diamond segments with similar crystal orientations. The image on the right is a magnification of the green square area. The orange lines highlight the inclusion trails, which match between the diamond segments. But those same trails are absent from the intersecting graphite. Image: Farhang Nabiei, Philippe Gillet, et. al.

But the parent body of the ureilite meteorite in the study would have to have been subject to collisions, otherwise where is it? In the case of this meteorite, a collision and resulting shock wave still played a role.

The study goes on to say that a collision took place some time after the parent body’s formation. And this collision would have produced the shock wave that caused the graphitization of the nanodiamonds.

The key evidence is in what are called High-Angle Annular Dark-Field (HAADF) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) images, as seen above. The image is two images in one, with the one on the right being a magnification of a part of the image on the left. On the left, dotted yellow lines indicate areas of diamond crystals separate from areas of graphite. On the right is a magnification of the green square.

The inclusion trails are what’s important here. On the right, the inclusion trails are highlighted with the orange lines. They clearly indicate inclusion lines that match between adjacent diamond segments. But the inclusion lines aren’t present in the intervening graphite. In the study, the researchers say this is “undeniable morphological evidence that the inclusions existed in diamond before these were broken into smaller pieces by graphitization.”

To summarize, this supports the idea that a small planet between the size of Mercury and Mars was formed in the first 10 million years of the Solar System. Inside that body, large nanodiamonds were formed by high-pressure growth. Eventually, that parent body was involved in a collision, which produced a shock wave. The shock wave then caused the graphitization of the nanodiamonds.

It’s an intriguing piece of evidence, and fits with what we know about the formation and evolution of our Solar System.


“Monster Planet” Discovered, Makes Scientists Rethink Theories of Planetary Formation

Artist’s impression of the cool red star and gas-giant planet NGTS-1b against the Milky Way. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick.

When it comes to how and where planetary systems form, astronomers thought they had a pretty good handle on things. The predominant theory, known as the Nebular Hypothesis, states that stars and planets form from massive clouds of dust and gas (i.e. nebulae). Once this cloud experiences gravitational collapse at the center, its remaining dust and gas forms a protoplanetary disk that eventually accretes to form planets.

However, when studying the distant star NGTS-1 – an M-type (red dwarf) located about 600 light-years away – an international team led by astronomers from the University of Warwick discovered a massive “hot Jupiter” that appeared far too large to be orbiting such a small star. The discovery of this “monster planet” has naturally challenged some previously-held notions about planetary formation.

The study, titled “NGTS-1b: A hot Jupiter transiting an M-dwarf“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team was led by Dr Daniel Bayliss and Professor Peter Wheatley from the University of Warwick and included members from the of the Geneva Observatory, the Cavendish Laboratory, the German Aerospace Center, the Leicester Institute of Space and Earth Observation, the TU Berlin Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and multiple universities and research institutes.

Artist’s impression of the cool red star above NGTS-1b. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick.

The discovery was made using data obtained by the ESO’s Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) facility, which is located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. This facility is run by an international consortium of astronomers who come from the Universities of Warwick, Leicester, Cambridge, Queen’s University Belfast, the Geneva Observatory, the German Aerospace Center, and the University of Chile.

Using a full array of fully-robotic compact telescopes, this photometric survey is one of several projects meant to compliment the Kepler Space Telescope. Like Kepler, it monitors distant stars for signs of sudden dips in brightness, which are an indication of a planet passing in front of (aka. “transiting”) the star, relative to the observer.  When examining data obtained from NGTS-1, the first star to be found by the survey, they made a surprising discovery.

Based on the signal produced by its exoplanet (NGTS-1b), they determined that it was a gas giant roughly the same size as Jupiter and almost as massive (0.812 Jupiter masses). Its orbital period of 2.6 days also indicated that it orbits very close to its star – about 0.0326 AU – which makes it a “hot Jupiter”. Based on these parameters, the team also estimated that NGTS-1b experiences temperatures of approximately 800 K (530°C; 986 °F).

The discovery threw the team for a loop, as it was believed to be impossible for planets of this size to form around small, M-type stars. In accordance with current theories about planet formation, red dwarf stars are believed to be able to form rocky planets – as evidenced by the many that have been discovered around red dwarfs of late – but are unable to gather enough material to create Jupiter-sized planets.

Artist’s concept of Jupiter-sized exoplanet that orbits relatively close to its star (aka. a “hot Jupiter”). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As Dr. Daniel Bayliss, an astronomer with the University of Geneva and the lead-author on the paper, commented in University of Warwick press release:

“The discovery of NGTS-1b was a complete surprise to us – such massive planets were not thought to exist around such small stars. This is the first exoplanet we have found with our new NGTS facility and we are already challenging the received wisdom of how planets form. Our challenge is to now find out how common these types of planets are in the Galaxy, and with the new NGTS facility we are well-placed to do just that.”

What is also impressive is the fact that the astronomers noticed the transit at all. Compared to other classes of stars, M-type stars are the smallest, coolest and dimmest. In the past, rocky bodies have been detected around them by measuring shifts in their position relative to Earth (aka. the Radial Velocity Method). These shifts are caused by the gravitational tug of one or more planets that cause the planet to “wobble” back and forth.

In short, the low light of an M-type star has made monitoring them for dips in brightness (aka. the Transit Method) highly impractical. However, using the NGTS’s red-sensitive cameras, the team was able to monitored patches of the night sky for many months. Over time, they noticed dips coming from NGTS-1 every 2.6 days, which indicated that a planet with a short orbital period was periodically passing in front of it.

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

They then tracked the planet’s orbit around the star and combined the transit data with Radial Velocity measurements to determine its size, position and mass. As Professor Peter Wheatley (who leads NGTS) indicated, finding the planet was painstaking work. But in the end, its discovery could lead to the detection of many more gas giants around low-mass stars:

“NGTS-1b was difficult to find, despite being a monster of a planet, because its parent star is small and faint. Small stars are actually the most common in the universe, so it is possible that there are many of these giant planets waiting to found. Having worked for almost a decade to develop the NGTS telescope array, it is thrilling to see it picking out new and unexpected types of planets. I’m looking forward to seeing what other kinds of exciting new planets we can turn up.”

Within the known Universe, M-type stars are by far the most common, accounting for 75% of all stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. In the past, the discovery of rocky bodies around stars like Proxima Centauri, LHS 1140, GJ 625, and the seven rocky planets around TRAPPIST-1, led many in the astronomical community to conclude that red dwarf stars were the best place to look for Earth-like planets.

The discovery of a Hot Jupiter orbiting NGTS-1 is therefore seen as an indication that other red dwarf stars could have orbiting gas giants as well. Above all, this latest find once again demonstrates the importance of exoplanet research. With every find we make beyond our Solar System, the more we learn about the ways in which planets form and evolve.

Every discovery we make also advances our understanding of how likely we may be to discover life out there somewhere. For in the end, what greater scientific goal is there than determining whether or not we are alone in the Universe?

Further Reading: UofWarwick, RAS, MNRAS

New Study Sheds Light on How Earth and Mars Formed

Snapshot of a computer simulation of two (relatively small) planets colliding with each other. The colors show how the rock of the impacting body (dark grey, in center of impact area) accretes to the target body (rock; light grey), while some of the rock in the impact area is molten (yellow to white) or vaporised (red). Credit: Philip J. Carter

In accordance with the Nebular Hypothesis, the Solar System is believed to have formed through the process of accretion. Essentially, this began when a massive cloud of dust and gas (aka. the Solar Nebula) experienced a gravitational collapse at its center, giving birth to the Sun. The remaining dust and gas then formed into a protoplanetary disc around the Sun, which gradually coalesced to form the planets.

However, much about the process of how planets evolved to become distinct in their compositions has remained a mystery. Luckily, a new study by a team of researchers from the University of Bristol has approached the subject with a fresh perspective. By examining a combination of Earth samples and meteorites, they have shed new light on how planets like Earth and Mars formed and evolved.

The study, titled “Magnesium Isotope Evidence that Accretional Vapour Loss Shapes Planetary Compositions“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. Led by Remco C. Hin, a senior research associate from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, the team compared samples of rock from Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Vesta to compare the levels of magnesium isotopes within them.

Artist’s impression of the early Solar System, where collision between particles in an accretion disc led to the formation of planetesimals and eventually planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Their study attempted answering what has been a lingering question in the scientific community – i.e. did the planets form the way they are today, or did they acquire their distinctive compositions over time? As Dr. Remco Hin explained in a University of Bristol press release:

“We have provided evidence that such a sequence of events occurred in the formation of the Earth and Mars, using high precision measurements of their magnesium isotope compositions. Magnesium isotope ratios change as a result of silicate vapour loss, which preferentially contains the lighter isotopes. In this way, we estimated that more than 40 per cent of the Earth’s mass was lost during its construction. This cowboy building job, as one of my co-authors described it, was also responsible for creating the Earth’s unique composition.

To break it down, accretion consists of clumps of material colliding with neighboring clumps to form larger objects. This process is very chaotic, and material is often lost as well as accumulated due to the extreme heat generated by these high-speed collisions. This heat is also believed to have created oceans of magma on the planets as they formed, not to mention temporary atmospheres of vaporized rock.

Until planets become about the same size as Mars, their force of gravitational attraction was too weak to hold onto these atmospheres. And as more collisions took place, the composition of these atmosphere and of the planets themselves would have changes substantially. How exactly the terrestrial planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – obtained their current, volatile-poor compositions over time is what scientists have hoped to address.

Artist impression of the Late Heavy Bombardment period. Credit: NASA

For example, some believe that the planets current compositions are the result of particular combinations of gas and dust during the earliest periods of planet formation – where terrestrial planets are silicate/metal rich, but volatile poor, because of which elements were most abundant closest to the Sun. Others have suggested that their current composition is a consequence of their violent growth and collisions with other bodies.

To shed light on this, Dr. Hin and his associates analyzed samples of Earth, along with meteorites from Mars and the asteroid Vesta using a new analytical approach. This technique is capable of obtaining more accurate measurements of magnesium isotope rations than any previous method. This method also showed that all differentiated bodies – like Earth, Mars and Vesta – have isotopically heavier magnesium compositions than chondritic meteorites.

From this, they were able to draw three conclusions. For one, they found that Earth, Mars and Vesta have distinct magnesium isotope rations that could not be explained by condensation from the Solar Nebula. Second, they noted that the study of heavy magnesium isotopes revealed that in all cases, the planets lost about 40% percent of their mass during their formation period, following repeated episodes of vaporization.

Last, they determined that the accretion process results in other chemical changes that generate the unique chemical characteristics of Earth. In short, their study showed that Earth, Mars and Vesta all experiences significant losses of material after formation, which means that their peculiar compositions were likely the result of collisions over time. As Dr Hin added:

“Our work changes our views on how planets attain their physical and chemical characteristics. While it was previously known that building planets is a violent process and that the compositions of planets such as Earth are distinct, it was not clear that these features were linked. We now show that vapour loss during the high energy collisions of planetary accretion has a profound effect on a planet’s composition.”

Their study also indicated that this violent formation process could be characteristic of planets in general. These findings are not only significant when it comes to the formation of the Solar System, but of extra-solar planets as well. When it comes time to explore distant star systems, the distinctive compositions of their planets will tell us much about the conditions from which they formed, and how they came to be.

Further Reading: University of Bristol, Nature

Scientists Propose a New Kind of Planet: A Smashed Up Torus of Hot Vaporized Rock

Artist's impression of a Mars-sized object crashing into the Earth, starting the process that eventually created our Moon. Credit: Joe Tucciarone
Artist's impression of a Mars-sized object crashing into the Earth, starting the process that eventually created our Moon. Credit: Joe Tucciarone

There’s a new type of planet in town, though you won’t find it in well-aged solar systems like our own. It’s more of a stage of formation that planets like Earth can go through. And its existence helps explain the relationship between Earth and our Moon.

The new type of planet is a huge, spinning, donut-shaped mass of hot, vaporized rock, formed as planet-sized objects smash into each other. The pair of scientists behind the study explaining this new planet type have named it a ‘synestia.’ Simon Lock, a graduate student at Harvard University, and Sarah Stewart, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Davis, say that Earth was at one time a synestia.

Rocky planets like Earth are accreted from smaller bodies over time. Objects with high energy and high angular momentum could form a synestia, a transient stage in planetary formation where vaporized rock orbits the rest of the body. In this image, each of the three stages has the same mass. Image: Simon Lock, Harvard University
Rocky planets like Earth are accreted from smaller bodies over time. Objects with high energy and high angular momentum could form a synestia, a transient stage in planetary formation where vaporized rock orbits the rest of the body. In this image, each of the three stages has the same mass. Image: Simon Lock, Harvard University

The current theory of planetary formation goes like this: When a star forms, the left-over material is in motion around the star. This left-over material is called a protoplanetary disk. The material coagulates into larger bodies as the smaller ones collide and join together.

As the bodies get larger and larger, the force of their collisions becomes greater and greater, and when two large bodies collided, their rocky material melts. Then, the newly created body cools, and becomes spherical. It’s understood that this is how Earth and the other rocky planets in our Solar System formed.

Lock and Stewart looked at this process and asked what would happen if the resulting body was spinning quickly.

When a body is spinning, the law of conservation of angular momentum comes into play. That law says that a spinning body will spin until an external torque slows it down. The often-used example from figure skating helps explain this.

If you’ve ever watched figure skaters, and who hasn’t, their actions are very instructive. When a single skater is spinning rapidly, she stretches out her arms to slow the rate of spin. When she folds her arms back into her body, she speeds up again. Her angular momentum is conserved.

This short video shows figure skaters and physics in action.

If you don’t like figure skating, this one uses the Earth to explain angular momentum.

Now take the example from a pair of figure skaters. When they’re both turning, and the two of them join together by holding each other’s hands and arms, their angular momentum is added together and conserved.

Replace two figure skaters with two planets, and this is what the two scientists behind the study wanted to model. What would happen if two large bodies with high energy and high angular momentum collided with each other?

If the two bodies had high enough temperatures and high enough angular momentum, a new type of planetary structure would form: the synestia. “We looked at the statistics of giant impacts, and we found that they can form a completely new structure,” Stewart said.

“We looked at the statistics of giant impacts, and we found that they can form a completely new structure.” – Professor Sarah Stewart, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

As explained in a press release from the UC Davis, for a synestia to form, some of the vaporized material from the collision must go into orbit. When a sphere is solid, every point on it is rotating at the same rate, if not the same speed. But when some of the material is vaporized, its volume expands. If it expands enough, and if its moving fast enough, it leaves orbit and forms a huge disc-shaped synestia.

Other theories have proposed that two large enough bodies could form an orbiting molten mass after colliding. But if the two bodies had high enough energy and temperature to vaporize some of the rock, the resulting synestia would occupy a much larger space.

“The main issue with looking for synestias around other stars is that they don’t last a long time. These are transient, evolving objects that are made during planet formation.” – Professor Sarah Stewart, UC Davis.

These synestias likely wouldn’t last very long. They would cool quickly and condense back into rocky bodies. For a body the size of Earth, the synestia might only last one hundred years.

The synestia structure sheds some light on how moons are formed. The Earth and the Moon are very similar in terms of composition, so it’s likely they formed as a result of a collision. It’s possible that the Earth and Moon formed from the same synestia.

These synestias have been modelled, but they haven’t been observed. However, the James Webb Space Telescope will have the power to peer into protoplanetary disks and watch planets forming. Will it observe a synestia?

“These are transient, evolving objects that are made during planet formation.” – Professor Sarah Stewart, UC Davis

In an email exchange with Universe Today, Dr. Sarah Stewart of UC Davis, one of the scientists behind the study, told us that “The main issue with looking for synestias around other stars is that they don’t last a long time. These are transient, evolving objects that are made during planet formation.”

“So the best bet for finding a rocky synestia is young systems where the body is close to the star. For gas giant planets, they may form a synestia for a period of their formation. We are getting close to being able to image circumplanetary disks in other star systems.”

Once we have the ability to observe planets forming in their circumstellar disks, we may find that synestias are more common than rare. In fact, planets may go through the synestia stage multiple times. Dr. Stewart told us that “Based on the statistics presented in our paper, we expect that most (more than half) of rocky planets that form in a manner similar to Earth became synestias one or more times during the giant impact stage of accretion.”

Finally, the Missing Link in Planetary Formation!

The process by which debris discs form planetesimals, and then planets, may finally be understood. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

Their study, titled “Self-Induced Dust Traps: Overcoming Planet Formation Barriers“, appeared recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Dr. Jean-Francois Gonzalez – of the Lyon Astrophysics Research Center (CRAL) in France – the team examined the troublesome middle-stage of planetary formation that has plagued scientists.

An image of a protoplanetary disk, made using results from the new model, after the formation of a spontaneous dust trap, visible as a bright dust ring. Gas is depicted in blue and dust in red. Credit: Jean-Francois Gonzalez.

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.

Artist’s impression of the planets in our solar system, along with the Sun (at bottom). Credit: NASA

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.

Illustration showing the stages of the formation mechanism for dust traps. Credit: © Volker Schurbert.

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.”

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society, MNRAS

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

Image Credit: Amanda Smith

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.