In 1802, German astronomer Heinrich Olbers observed what he thought was a planet within the Main Asteroid Belt. In time, astronomers would come to name this body Pallas, an alternate name for the Greek warrior goddess Athena. The subsequent discovery of many more asteroids in the Main Belt would lead to Pallas being reclassified as a large asteroid, the third-largest in the Belt after Ceres and Vesta.
For centuries, astronomers have sought to get a better look at Pallas to learn more about its size, shape, and composition. As of the turn of the century, astronomers had come to conclude that it was an oblate spheroid (an elongated sphere). Thanks to a new study by an international team, the first detailed images of Pallas have finally been taken, which reveal that its shape is more akin to a “golf ball” – i.e. heavily dimpled.
Within the Main Asteroid Belt, there are a number of larger bodies that have defied traditional classification. The largest among them is Ceres, which is followed by Vesta, Pallas, and Hygeia. Until recently, Ceres was thought to be the only object in the Main Belt large enough to undergo hydrostatic equilibrium – where an object is sufficiently massive that its gravity causes it to collapse into a roughly spherical shape.
On May 25th, 2019, a strange, double-asteroid (1999 KW4) flew past Earth at a distance and speed that is likely to make a lot of people nervous. As always, there was no danger, since the asteroid passed Earth at a minimum distance of 5.2 million km (3.23 million mi), over 15 times greater than the distance between Earth of the Moon, and its orbit is well-understood by scientists.
Because of this, flyby was the perfect opportunity for the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) to conduct a cross-organizational observing campaign of the asteroid 1999 KW4 as it flew by Earth. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) took part in this campaign and managed to capture some images of the object using the Very Large Telescope (VLT).
The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released a stunning collection of images of the circumstellar discs that surround young stars. The images were captured with the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. We’ve been looking at images of circumstellar disks for quite some time, but this collection reveals the fascinating variety of shapes an sizes that these disks can take.
We have a widely-accepted model of star formation supported by ample evidence, including images like these ones from the ESO. The model starts with a cloud of gas and dust called a giant molecular cloud. Within that cloud, a pocket of gas and dust begins to coalesce. Eventually, as gravity causes material to fall inward, the pocket becomes more massive, and exerts even more gravitational pull. More gas and dust continues to be drawn in.
The material that falls in also gives some angular momentum to the pocket, which causes rotation. Once enough material is accumulated, fusion ignites and a star is born. At that point, there is a proto-star inside the cloud, with unused gas and dust remaining in a rotating ring around the proto-star. That left over rotating ring is called a circumstellar disc, out of which planets eventually form.
There are other images of circumstellar discs, but they’ve been challenging to capture. To image any amount of detail in the disks requires blocking out the light of the star at the center of the disk. That’s where SPHERE comes in.
SPHERE was added to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in 2014. It’s primary job is to directly image exoplanets, but it also has the ability to capture images of circumstellar discs. To do that, it separates two types of light: polarized, and non-polarized.
Light coming directly from a star—in these images, a young star still surrounded by a circumstellar disc—is non-polarized. But once that starlight is scattered by the material in the disk itself, the light becomes polarized. SPHERE, as its name suggests, is able to separate the two types of light and isolate just the light from the disk. That is how the instrument captures such fascinating images of the disks.
Ever since it became clear that exoplanets are not rare, and that most stars—maybe all stars—have planets orbiting them, understanding solar system formation has become a hot topic. The problem has been that we can’t really see it happening in real time. We can look at our own Solar System, and other fully formed ones, and make guesses about how they formed. But planet formation is hidden inside those circumstellar disss. Seeing into those disks is crucial to understanding the link between the properties of the disk itself and the planets that form in the system.
The discs imaged in this collection are mostly from a study called the DARTTS-S (Discs ARound T Tauri Stars with SPHERE) survey. T Tauri stars are young stars less than 10 million years old. At that age, planets are still in the process of forming. The stars range from 230 to 550 light-years away from Earth. In astronomical terms, that’s pretty close. But the blinding bright light of the stars still makes it very difficult to capture the faint light of the discs.
One of the images is not a T Tauri star and is not from the DARTTS-S study. The disc around the star GSC 07396-00759, in the image above, is actually from the SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) survey, though the images itself was captured with SPHERE. GSC 07396-00759 is a red star that’s part of a multiple star system that was part of the DARTTS-S study. The puzzling thing is that red star is the same age as the T TAURI star in the same system, but the ring around the red star is much more evolved. Why the two discs around two stars the same age are so different from each other in terms of time-scale and evolution is a puzzle, and is one of the reasons why astronomers want to study these discs much more closely.
We can study our own Solar System, and look at the positions and characteristics of the planets and the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt. From that we can try to guess how it all formed, but our only chance to understand how it all came together is to look at other younger solar systems as they form.
The SPHERE instrument, and other future instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to look into the circumstellar discs around other stars, and to tease out the details of planetary formation. These new images from SPHERE are a tantalizing taste of the detail and variety we can expect to see.
In the famous scene from the Star Wars movie “A New Hope” we recall young Luke Skywalker contemplating his future in the light of a binary sunset on the planet Tatooine. Not so many years later in 2011, astronomers using the Kepler Space Telescope discovered Kepler-16b, the first Tatooine-like planet known to orbit two suns in a binary system. Now astronomers have found a planet in a triple star system where an observer would either experience constant daylight or enjoy triple sunrises and sunsets each day, depending on the seasons, which last longer than human lifetimes.
They used the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to directly image the planet, the first ever found inside a triple-star system. The three stars are named HD 131399A, HD 131399B and HD 131399C in order of decreasing brightness; the planet orbits the brightest and goes by the chunky moniker HD 131399Ab.
Located about 320 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus the Centaur HD 131399Ab is about 16 million years old, making it also one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date, and one for which we have a direct image. With a temperature of around 1,075° F (580° C) and the mass about four times that of Jupiter, it’s also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets.
To pry it loose from the glare of its host suns, a team of astronomers led by the University of Arizona used a state of the art adaptive optics system to give razor-sharp images coupled with SPHERE, an instrument that blocks the light from the central star(s) similar to the way a coronagraph blocks the brilliant solar disk and allows study of the Sun’s corona. Finally, the region around the star is photographed in infrared polarized light to make any putative planets stand out more clearly against the remaining glare.
The planet, HD 131399Ab, is unlike any other known world — its orbit around the brightest of the three stars is by far the widest known within a multi-star system. It was once thought that planets orbiting a multi-star system would be unstable because of the changing gravitational tugs on the planet from the other two stars. Yet this planet remains in orbit instead of getting booted out of the system, leading astronomers to think that planets orbiting multiple stars might be more common that previously thought.
HD 131399Ab orbits HD 131399A, estimated to be 80% more massive than the Sun. Its double-star companions orbit about 300 times the Earth-Sun distance away. For much of the planet’s 550 year orbit, all three stars would appear close together in the sky and set one after the other in unique triple sunsets and sunrises each day. But when the planet reached the other side of its orbit around its host sun, that star and the pair would lie in opposite parts of the sky. As the pair set, the host would rise, bathing HD 131399Ab in near-constant daytime for about one-quarter of its orbit, or roughly 140 Earth-years.
Click to see a wonderful simulation showing how the planet orbits within the trinary system
Planets in multi-star systems are of special interest to astronomers and planetary scientists because they provide an example of how the mechanism of planetary formation functions in these more extreme scenarios. Since multi-star systems are just as common as single stars, so planets may be too.
How would our perspective of the cosmos change I wonder if Earth orbited triple suns instead of a single star? Would the sight deepen our desire for adventure like the fictional Skywalker? Or would we suffer the unlucky accident of being born at the start of a multi-decade long stretch of constant daylight? Wonderful musings for the next clear night under the stars.