Suburu Telescope Captures Hidden Planets In Stellar Dust Ring

Near-infrared (1.6 micron) image of the debris ring around the star HR 4796 A. An astronomical unit (AU) is a unit of length that corresponds to the average distance between the Earth and Sun, almost 92 million miles (over 149 million km). The ring consists of dust grains in a wide orbit (roughly twice the size of Pluto's orbit) around the central star. Its edge is so precisely revealed that the researchers could confirm a previously suspected offset between the ring's center and the star's location. This "wobble" in the dust's orbit is most likely caused by the unbalancing action of – so far undetected – massive planets likely to be orbiting within the ring. Furthermore, the image of the ring appears to be smudged out at its tips and reveals the presence of finer dust extending out beyond the main body of the ring. Credit: Suburu


No. It’s not a new atomic image – it’s a very unusual look at a star which could help further our understanding of stellar disk structure and planetary formation. As part of the SEEDS (Strategic Exploration of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru Telescope/HiCIAO) project, this image of star HR 4796 was taken with Subaru’s planet-finder camera, HiCIAO (High Contrast Instrument for the Subaru Next Generation Adaptive Optics). At only about 8-10 million years old, the feature of this stellar image is only about 240 light years away from Earth, yet fully displays its ring of dust grains which reach out about twice the distance as Pluto’s orbit from the central star. This image produced by an international group led by Motohide Tamura of NAOJ (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) is so wonderfully detailed that an offset between its center and the star’s position can be measured. While the offset was predicted by data from the Hubble and another research group, this new photographic evidence not only confirms its presence – but shows it to be larger than expected.

With new data to work from, researchers began to wonder exactly what could have caused the dust torus to run off its axis. The easiest explanation would be gravitational force – where one or more planets located inside the gap within the ring could possibly be affecting the disk. This type of action could account for an “unbalancing” which could act in a predictable manner. Current computer modeling has shown these types of “gravitational tides” can mold a dust torus in unusual ways and they cite similar data gathered from observations of bright star, Formalhaut. Since no planet candidates have yet been directly observed around HR 4796, chances are any planets present are simply too small and dim to be spotted. However, thanks to the new Suburu image, researchers feel confident their presence could be the source of the circumstellar dust ring wobble.

With image accuracy as pinpoint as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Suburu near-infrared depiction allows for extremely accurate measurements by employing its adaptive optics system. This type of advanced astrophotography also allows for angular differential imaging – by-passing the glare of the central star and enhancing the faint signature of the dust ring. Such techniques are able to establish heightened information about the relationship of the circumstellar disk and gelling planets… a process which may begin from the “left-overs” of initial star formation. As surmised, this material could either be picked up by newly formed planets or be pushed out the system via stellar winds. Either way, it is a process which eliminates the majority of the dust within a few tens of millions of years. However, there are a few stars which continue to hold on to a “secondary disk” – a collection of dust which could be attributed to the collision of planetesimals. In the case of HR 4796, this is a likely scenario and studying it may provide a better understanding of how planets could form in this alternate debris disk.

Original Story Source: Suburu Telescope News Release. For Further Reading: Direct Images of Disks Unravel Mystery of Planet Formation.

Little Galaxies Are Big on Dark Matter

The stellar stream in the halo of the nearby dwarf starburst galaxy NGC 4449 is resolved into its individual starry constituents in this exquisite image taken with the 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope and Suprime-Cam. Image credit: R. Jay GaBany and Aaron J. Romanowsky (UCSC) in collaboration with David Martinez-Delgado (MPIA) and NAOJ. Image processed by R. Jay GaBany


Dark matter… It came into existence at the moment of the Big Bang. Within its confines, galaxies formed and evolved. If you add up all the parts contained within any given galaxy you derive its mass, yet its gravitational effects can only be explained by the presence of this mysterious subatomic particle. It would be easy to believe that the larger the galaxy, the larger the amount of dark matter should be present, but new research shows that isn’t so. Dwarf galaxies have even higher proportions of dark matter than their larger counterparts. Although the dwarfs are the most common of all, we know very little about them – even when they consume each other. Enter the star stream…

“Several of my previous images feature the fossil remnants of these ancient mergers as faint stellar rivers called tidal streams. These stellar streams are the table crumbs from small dwarf galaxies that were gravitationally dismembered as they were devoured by the larger galaxy they orbited.” says astrophotographer, R. Jay Gabany. “The theory implies dwarf galaxies also merged and are still merging with each other. But, there has never been clear photographic evidence or a close investigation of dwarf galactic mergers until now.”

The target is NGC 4449, a small, irregular dwarf galaxy much like the Milky Way’s Large Magellanic Cloud. What makes it interesting to astronomers is the presence of thousands of hot blue stars and massive red regions interspaced with thick dust clouds. It isn’t just forming new stars… it’s experiencing an explosion of star birth! According to current theory, dwarf galaxies such as this one could be undergoing a merger event, but there hasn’t been photographic proof until now.

“The picture I am sharing is of a small, dwarf galaxy known as NGC 4449 that’s located about 12.5 million light years from Earth towards the northern constellation of Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs. This galaxy is about the size of our Milky Way’s largest satellite galaxy, the Magellanic Cloud. But, NGC 4449 is much farther away and it is experiencing a major star burst event- an episode characterized by the production of new stars at a furious rate.” says Gabany. “This image is unique because it captures the first dwarf galaxy known to have its own tidal stream of stars. Therefore, it represents the first closely studied example of a dwarf galaxy merging with an even smaller dwarf star system! The professional astronomers with whom I work also suspect the merger may have contributed to the ferocious production rate of new stars inside NGC 4449.”

The research done by the team led by Dr. David Martinez-Delgado has some very interesting ramifications and their paper has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.. As so well put in Jay’s photographic explanation in his webpage; “Although the cold dark matter theory predicts mergers and interactions between dwarf galaxies, there is scant observational evidence that these types of mergers are still happening in the nearby local Universe. Interactions between dwarf galaxies invoke the possibility of exploring a very different merger regime. For example, research has shown that multiple dwarf galaxies with different stellar masses may exist in similar sized dark matter halos, hence what appears as a minor merger of stars could be a major dark matter merger. Studying interactions on a small scale, such as NGC 4449, provides unique insights on the role of stars versus dark matter in galactic merger events.”

Where once amateur astrophotographers painted beautiful portraits of what lay just beyond human perception in deep space, they are now crafting images capable of true science. The eyes of their telescopes are being combined with professional instruments and producing amazing results.

“We live in an age where science has become unfettered from examining the Universe with only our physical six senses.” concludes Gabany. “This has unlocked a profound new level of understanding, resolved ancient mysteries and unlatched a Pandora’s chest filled with new questions begging for answers. We still have much to learn.”

For Further Reading: Dwarfs Gobbling Dwarfs: A Stellar Tidal Stream Around NGC 4449 and Hierarchical Galaxy Formation On Small Scales and The Big Deal About Dwarf Galaxies.