Are the Gaps in These Disks Caused by Planets?

Astronomers like observing distant young stars as they form. Stars are born out of a molecular cloud, and once enough of the matter in that cloud clumps together, fusion ignites and a star begins its life. The leftover material from the formation of the star is called a circumstellar disk.

As the material in the circumstellar disk swirls around the now-rotating star, it clumps up into individual planets. As planets form in it, they leave gaps in that disk. Or so we think.

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

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.

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We Know We’re Made of Stardust. But Did it Come From Red Giants?

We’ve all heard this one: when you drink a glass of water, that water has already been through a bunch of other people’s digestive tracts. Maybe Attila the Hun’s or Vlad the Impaler’s; maybe even a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s.

Well, the same thing is true of stars and matter. All the matter we see around us here on Earth, even our own bodies, has gone through at least one cycle of stellar birth and death, maybe more. But which type of star?

That’s what a team of researchers at ETH Zurich (Ecole polytechnique federale de Zurich) wanted to know.

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There Could be Planets Orbiting Around Supermassive Black Holes

Perhaps the greatest discovery to come from the “Golden Age of General Relativity” (ca. 1960 to 1975) was the realization that a supermassive black hole (SMBH) exists at the center of our galaxy. In time, scientists came to realize that similarly massive black holes were responsible for the extreme amounts of energy emanating from the active galactic nuclei (AGNs) of distant quasars.

Given their sheer size, mass, and energetic nature, scientists have known for some time that some pretty awesome things take place beyond the event horizon of an SMBH. But according to a recent study by a team of Japanese researchers, it is possible that SMBHs can actually form a system of planets! In fact, the research team concluded that SMBHs can form planetary systems that would put our Solar System to shame!

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A Star’s Outburst is Releasing Organic Molecules Trapped in the ice Around it

According to widely-accepted theories, the Solar System formed roughly 4.6 billion years ago from a massive cloud of dust and gas (aka. Nebular Theory). This process began when the nebula experienced a gravitational collapse in the center that became our Sun. The remaining dust and gas formed a protoplanetary disk that (over time) accreted to form the planets.

However, scientists remain unsure about when organic molecules first appeared in our Solar System. Luckily, a new study by an international team of astronomers may be able to help answer that question. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array (ALMA), the team detected complex organic molecules around the young star V883 Ori, which could someday lead to the emergence of life in that system.

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Bad News. Planets Orbiting Red Dwarfs Might not have the Raw Materials for Life

New research from the Hubble Space Telescope and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope is dampening some of the enthusiasm in the search for life. Observations by both ‘scopes suggest that the raw materials necessary for life may be rare in solar systems centered around red dwarfs.

And if the raw materials aren’t there, it may mean that many of the exoplanets we’ve found in the habitable zones of other stars just aren’t habitable after-all.

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Finally, the Missing Link in Planetary Formation!

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

ALMA Captures Never-Before-Seen Details of Protoplanetary Disk

ALMA’s best image of a protoplanetary disc to date. This picture of the nearby young star TW Hydrae reveals the classic rings and gaps that signify planets are in formation in this system.
ALMA’s best image of a protoplanetary disk to date. This picture of the nearby young star TW Hydrae reveals the classic rings and gaps that signify planets are in formation in this system. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

TW Hydrae is a special star. Located 175 light years from Earth in the constellation Hydra the Water Snake, it sits at the center of a dense disk of gas and dust that astronomers think resembles our solar system when it was just 10 million years old. The disk is incredibly clear in images made using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, which employs 66 radio telescopes sensitive to light just beyond that of infrared.  Spread across more than 9 miles (15 kilometers), the ALMA array acts as a gigantic single telescope that can make images 10 times sharper than even the Hubble Space Telescope.

This photo of the ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile, more than 16,000 feet (5000 meters) above sea level, was taken a few days before the start of ALMA Early Science and shows only one cluster of the 66 dishes. ALMA views the sky in "submillimeter" light, a slice of the spectrum invisible to the human eye that lies between infrared and radio waves. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/W. Garnier (ALMA)
This photo of the ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile, more than 16,000 feet (5000 meters) above sea level, was taken a few days before the start of ALMA Early Science and shows only one cluster of the 66 dishes. ALMA views the sky in submillimeter light, a slice of the spectrum invisible to the human eye that lies between infrared and radio waves. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/W. Garnier (ALMA)

Astronomers everywhere point their telescopes at TW Hydrae because it’s the closest infant star in the sky. With an age of between 5 and 10 million years, it’s not even running on hydrogen fusion yet, the process by which stars convert hydrogen into helium to produce energy. TW Hydrae shines from the energy released as it contracts through gravity. Fusion and official stardom won’t begin until it’s dense enough and hot enough for fusion to fire up in its belly.

ALMA image of the planet-forming disk around the young, sun-like star TW Hydrae. The inset image (upper right) zooms in on the gap nearest to the star, which is at the same distance as the Earth is from the sun, and may show an infant version of our home planet emerging from the dust and gas. The additional concentric light and dark features represent other planet-forming regions farther out in the disk. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
ALMA image of the planet-forming disk around the young, sun-like star TW Hydrae. The inset image (upper right) zooms in on the gap nearest to the star, which is at the same distance as the Earth is from the sun, and may show an infant version of our home planet emerging from the dust and gas. The additional concentric light and dark features represent other planet-forming regions farther out in the disk. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

We see most protoplanetary disks at various angles, but TW’s has a face-on orientation as seen from Earth, giving astronomers a rare, undistorted view of the complete disk around the star. The new images show amazing detail, revealing a series of concentric bright rings of dust separated by dark gaps. There’s even indications that a planet with an Earth-like orbit has begun clearing an orbit.

“Previous studies with optical and radio telescopes confirm that TW Hydrae hosts a prominent disk with features that strongly suggest planets are beginning to coalesce,” said Sean Andrews with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA and lead author on a paper published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Blurry as it is, the detail here is staggering. It shows a gap about 93 million miles from the central starsuggesting that a planet with a similar orbit to Earth is forming there. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
The model (at left) of a protoplanetary disk shows a newly forming star at the center of a saucer-shaped dust cloud. At right, a close up of TW Hydrae taken by ALMA shows a gap about 93 million miles from the central star, suggesting that a planet with a similar orbit to Earth is forming there. Credit: (Left: L. Calcada). Right: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Pronounced gaps that show up in the photos above are located at 1.9 and 3.7 billion miles (3-6 billion kilometers) from the central star, similar to the average distances from the sun to Uranus and Pluto in the solar system. They too are likely to be the results of particles that came together to form planets, which then swept their orbits clear of dust and gas to sculpt the remaining material into well-defined bands. ALMA picks up the faint emission of submillimeter light emitted by dust grains in the disk, revealing details as small as 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) or the distance of Earth from the sun

This image compares the size of the solar system with HL Tauri and its surrounding protoplanetary disc. Although the star is much smaller than the Sun, the disc around HL Tauri stretches out to almost three times as far from the star as Neptune is from the Sun. Credit:ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
This image compares the size of the solar system with HL Tauri and its surrounding protoplanetary disc. Although the star is much smaller than the Sun, the disc around HL Tauri stretches out to almost three times as far from the star as Neptune is from the Sun. Credit:ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

“This is the highest spatial resolution image ever of a protoplanetary disk from ALMA, and that won’t be easily beaten in the future!” said Andrews.

Earlier ALMA observations of another system, HL Tauri, show that even younger protoplanetary disks — a mere 1 million years old — look remarkably similar.  By studying the older TW Hydrae disk, astronomers hope to better understand the evolution of our own planet and the prospects for similar systems throughout the Milky Way.

Pluto-like Objects Turn to Dust Around a Nearby Young Star

A planetary system’s early days readily tell of turmoil. Giant planets are swept from distant birthplaces into sizzling orbits close to their host star. Others are blasted away from their star into the darkness of space. And smaller bodies, like asteroids and comets, are being traded around constantly.

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have seen the latter: swarms of Pluto-size objects turning to dust around a young star. And the image is remarkable.

“This system offers us the chance to study an intriguing time around a young, Sun-like star,” said coauthor Stuartt Corder and ALMA Deputy Director in a news release. “We are possibly looking back in time here, back to when the Sun was about 2 percent of its current age.”

The young star, HD 107146, is located roughly 90 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices. Although the star itself is visible in any small telescope, ALMA can probe the star’s radically faint protoplanetary disk. This is the star’s dusty cocoon that coalesces into planets, comets and asteroids.

ALMA’s image revealed an unexpected bump in the number of millimeter-size dust grains far from the host star. This highly concentrated band spans roughly 30 to 150 astronomical units, the equivalent of Neptune’s orbit around the Sun to four times Pluto’s orbit.

So where is the extra dust coming from?

Typically, dust in the debris disk is simply left over material from the formation of planets. Early on, however, Pluto-size objects (otherwise known as planetesimals) will collide and blast themselves apart, also contributing to the dust. Certain models predict that this leads to a much higher concentration of dust in the most distant regions of the disk.

Although this is the case for HD 107146, “this is the opposite of what we see in younger primordial disks where the dust is denser near the star,” said lead author Luca Ricci from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It is possible that we caught this particular debris disk at a stage in which Pluto-size planetesimals are forming right now in the outer disk while other Pluto-size bodies have already formed closer to the star.”

Adding to this hypothesis is the fact that there’s a slight depression in the dust at 80 astronomical units, or twice Pluto’s average distance from the Sun. This could be a slight gap in the dust, where an Earth-size planet is sweeping the area clear of a debris disk.

If true, this would be the first observation of an Earth-size planet forming so far from its host star. But for now that’s a big if.

The results will be published in the Astrophysical Journal and are available online.