Astronomers Spot Three Interacting Systems with Twin Discs

Artist's conceptualization of the dusty TYC 8241 2652 system as it might have appeared several years ago when it was emitting large amounts of excess infrared radiation. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook. https://www.gemini.edu/node/11836

According to the most widely-accepted theory about star formation (Nebular Hypothesis), stars and planets form from huge clouds of dust and gas. These clouds undergo gravitational collapse at their center, leading to the birth of new stars, while the rest of the material forms disks around it. Over time, these disks become ring structures that accrete to form systems of planets, planetoids, asteroid belts, and Kuiper belts. For some time, astronomers have questioned how interactions between early stellar environments may affect their formation and evolution.

For instance, it has been theorized that gravitational interactions with a passing star or shock waves from a supernova might have triggered the core collapse that led to our Sun. To investigate this possibility, an international team of astronomers observed three interacting twin disc systems using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). Their findings show that due to their dense stellar environments, gravitational encounters between early-stage star systems play a significant role in their evolution.

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We’ve Now Seen Planet-Forming Disks Around Hundreds of Young Stars. What Do They Tell Us?

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

Is our Solar System comparable to other solar systems? What do other systems look like? We know from exoplanet studies that many other systems have hot Jupiters, massive gas giants that orbit extremely close to their stars. Is that normal, and our Solar System is the outlier?

One way of addressing these questions is to study the planet-forming disks around young stars to see how they evolve. But studying a large sample of these systems is the only way to get an answer. So that’s what a group of astronomers did when they surveyed 873 protoplanetary disks.

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A Second Generation of Planets can Form Around a Dying Star

An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005
An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005

When young stars coalesce out of a cloud of molecular hydrogen, a disk of leftover material called a protoplanetary disk surrounds them. This disk is where planets form, and astronomers are getting better at peering into those veiled environments and watching embryonic worlds take shape. But young stars aren’t the only stars with disks of raw material rotating around them.

Some old, dying stars also have disks. Can a second generation of planets form under those conditions?

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Astronomers See Carbon-Rich Nebulae Where Planets are Forming

The protoplanetary disk

Understanding the birth of a planet is a challenging puzzle. We know that planets form inside clouds of gas and dust that surround new stars, known as protoplanetary disks. But grasping exactly how that process works – connecting the dots between a dust cloud and a finished planet – is not easy. An international team of astronomers is attempting to unlock some of those secrets, and have recently completed the most extensive chemical composition mapping of several protoplanetary discs around five young stars. Their research allows them to begin to piece together the chemical makeup of future exoplanets, offering a glimpse into the formation of new alien worlds.

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The Strange, Misshapen Orbits of Planet-Forming Disks in a Triple-Star System

ALMA images of the planet-forming disk with misaligned rings around triple star system GW Orionis. The image on the right is made with ALMA data taken in 2017 from Bi et al. The image on the left is made with ALMA data taken in 2018 from Kraus et al. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), S. Kraus & J. Bi; NRAO/AUI/NSF, S. Dagnello

Whatever we grow up with, we think of as normal. Our single solitary yellow star seems normal to us, with planets orbiting on the same, aligned ecliptic. But most stars aren’t alone; most are in binary relationships. And some are in triple-star systems.

And the planet-forming disks around those three-star systems can exhibit some misshapen orbits.

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More Pictures of Planet-Forming Disks Around Young Stars

The fifteen images of protoplanetary disks, captured with ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer. CREDIT Jacques Kluska et al.

Astronomy is advancing to the point where we can see planets forming around young stars. This was an unthinkable development only a few years ago. In fact, it was only two years ago that astronomers captured the first image of a newly-forming planet.

Now there are more and more studies into how planets form, including a new one with fifteen images of planet-forming disks around young stars.

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Habitability of Planets Will Depend on Their Interiors

An illustration of the surface of the exoplanet Barnard's Star b. Image Credit: M. Kornmesser, ESA.
An illustration of the surface of the exoplanet Barnard's Star b. Image Credit: M. Kornmesser, ESA.

A lot of the headlines and discussion around the habitability of exoplanets is focused on their proximity to their star and on the presence of water. It makes sense, because those are severely limiting factors. But those planetary characteristics are really just a starting point for the habitable/not habitable discussion. What happens in a planet’s interior is also important.

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Bizarre Double Star System Flipped its Planetary Disk on its Side

Artwork of the system HD 98000, showing the inner binary comprised of two sun-like components, surrounded by a thick disc of material. Copyright and credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

Astronomers theorize that when our Sun was still young, it was surrounded by a disc of dust and gas from which the planets eventually formed. It is further theorized that the majority of stars in our Universe are initially surrounded in this way by a “protoplanetary disk“, and that in roughly 30% of cases, these disks will go on to become a planet or system of planets.

Ordinarily, these disks are thought to orbit around the equatorial band (aka. the ecliptic) of a star or system of stars. However, new research conducted by an international group of scientists has discovered the first example of a binary star system where the orientation was flipped and the disk now orbits the stars around their poles (perpendicular to the ecliptic).

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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.

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Chaotic Wombs May Birth Wrong-way Planets

Turbulent somethings lead to something. Image Credit: Vob

We’ve heard it time and time again. When it comes to new exoplanet findings, our conventional wisdom never holds. So the surprise that a batch of extrasolar planets are moving retrograde, orbiting in directions opposite to the way their stars are spinning, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Then again, maybe it should. These discoveries turned the long-standing view of how planets form on its head. Now Eduard Vorobyov at the University of Vienna and colleagues argue that chaotic conditions in the planetary system’s gaseous wombs may be to blame.

Theorists have long assumed that stars and their planetary companions assemble from spinning disks of gas and dust. This causes the star to spin in one direction, while its planetary companions follow suit. “In some fundamental sense, the cloud carries a ‘genetic code’ that obligates the formation of corotating stars and planets,” Vorobyov told Universe Today.

So how do these wrong-way exoplanets get out of whack? Some theorists have postulated that the gravitational tugs from neighbors might change their direction of rotation. But this is pretty difficult for massive planets.

So Vorobyov and his colleagues took a second look at the initial clouds in which stars and their corotating planets form. Initially, astronomers thought that clouds evolve in relative isolation. Recent simulations, however, suggest that “clouds form within a turbulent environment and move like bees in a hive from one place to another,” said Vorobyov.

So a moving cloud might end up in an environment that’s quite different from the one it had at birth. It could even find itself surrounded by gas that’s swirling opposite to its spin.

Vorobyov and colleagues ran simulations that place clouds into environments with various characteristics. Sure enough when a gas cloud is surrounded by gas that’s swirling in the opposite direction, the inner disk continues to rotate in the same direction of the star, but the outer disk flips and starts to rotate in the opposite direction.

Over time, grains glom together in both disks until they ultimately form planets. Any inner planets will rotate with the star and any outer planets will rotate opposite the star.

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tauri
ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tauri. Image Credit: ALMA / ESO / NOAJ / NRAO / NSF

But there are a few interesting byproducts. The first is that there’s a gap between the two counter-rotating disks. So whenever we see gaps in protoplanetary disks (like the one ALMA spotted a few weeks ago), these gaps might not be the result of a forming planet, but instead a null space between two counter-rotating disks.

The second is that the outer disk produces shock waves, which can trigger early planet formation. “The idea that planets would naturally form in the first very short (100,000 to 400,000 years) lifetime of the protostar would be profound, even if some of the planets were later destroyed,” expert Joel Green from the University of Texas told Universe Today.

This stands in contrast to the idea that planets collect their mass from collisions. It’s a process that astronomers think takes millions of years. But Green isn’t completely convinced by the simulations just yet as there seems to be no physical reason for the outer disks to end up counter rotating.

It all really comes down to the question of nature vs. nurture. “In some philosophical sense, the nurture (external environment) may completely change the nature of planet-forming disks,” said Vorobyov.

The results will be published in Astronomy & Astrophysics and are available online.