Nearby star's icy debris suggests 'shepherd' planet
Astronomers exploring the disk of gas and dust around a nearby star have uncovered a compact cloud of poisonous gas formed by ongoing rapid-fire collisions among a swarm of icy, comet-like bodies.
The researchers suggest the comet swarm is either the remnant of a crash between two icy worlds the size of Mars or frozen debris trapped and concentrated by the gravity of an as-yet-unseen planet.
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the researchers mapped millimeter-wavelength light from dust and carbon monoxide (CO) molecules in a disk surrounding the bright star Beta Pictoris.
Located about 63 light-years away and only 20 million years old, the star hosts one of the closest, brightest and youngest debris disks known, making it an ideal laboratory for studying the early development of planetary systems.
Team member Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said that although toxic, carbon monoxide is one of many gases found in comets and other icy bodies.
She said that in the rough-and-tumble environment around a young star, these objects frequently collide and generate fragments that release dust, icy grains and stored gases.
The ALMA images reveal a vast belt of carbon monoxide located at the fringes of the Beta Pictoris system. Much of the gas is concentrated in a single clump located about 8 billion miles (13 billion kilometers) from the star, or nearly three times the distance between the planet Neptune and the Sun.
The presence of all this gas is a clue that something interesting is going on because ultraviolet starlight breaks up CO molecules in about 100 years, much faster than the main cloud can complete a single orbit around the star.
Dent and his team calculate that to offset the destruction of CO molecules around Beta Pictoris, a large comet must be completely destroyed every five minutes. Only an unusually massive and compact swarm of comets could support such an astonishingly high collision rate.
The paper has been published in the Science Express.
(Posted on 07-03-2014)