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Direct Images Of Disks Unravel Mystery Of Planet Formation
by Staff Writers
Tokyo, Japan (SPX) Feb 18, 2011

Image taken by HiCIAO. The central star is hidden by the dark brown area toward the center. The inner edge of the outer disk is visible. The white feature below the blocked out area is part of the disk illuminated by the central star. The opposite side of the disk is not readily visible. There is a gap between the inner boundary of the disk and the star, at a distance of about 50 AU (Astronomical Unit, the distance between the Earth and the Sun, about 150 million kilometers or 94 million miles. Detailed images and captions at Subaru

The fruits of the Strategic Explorations of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru (SEEDS) project, led by Motohide Tamura of NAOJ (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan), continue with another remarkable discovery: The telescope has directly and sharply imaged two young stars that reveal how planets may have formed from their disks.

No other telescopes, whether ground-based or in space, have ever penetrated so close to central stars, showing the details of their disks.

One of the images is of the disk of the very young star AB Aur in the constellation Auriga. The star is only about one million years old and is surrounded by its protoplanetary disk, a structure of gas and dust from which planets are likely to form.

The image displays high spatial resolution as well as high contrast within the disk near its central star; it reveals, for the first time, the fine structures of a disk orbiting closer to its star than Neptune's distance from the Sun in our solar system.

AB Aur's disk has double rings that are tilted from the equatorial plane; a void of material between the rings; and a center that does not coincide with the position of the star. These irregularities suggest that at least one giant planet is affecting the features of the disk.

The other image from the project is that of another young star, LkCa 15, which is several million years old. Although previous works speculated that there was a gap in its disk, this is the first direct imaging of a central gap in the disk.

The lack of material in the vicinity of the central star implies that a giant planet is sweeping up the disk's leftover materials that the central star did not swallow.

Overall, these first two direct images of the detailed structure of the protoplanetary disks provide strong evidence for planet formation within a system on the scale of our solar system. The influence of heavy planets is likely to have produced the irregular features of the disks.

The SEEDS project will continue for five years, allowing astronomers to search the universe for exoplanets and their protoplanetary disks, in an ongoing quest to decipher how planetary systems form. Recent and future findings from the project may eventually contribute to our understanding of how Earth-like habitable zones develop.

The article with results for AB Aur has been accepted by the Astrophysical Journal for publication in 2011. The results for LkCa 15 were previously published in the Astrophysical Journal (Thalmann et al. 2010, Ap.J., 718, 87).


Related Links
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
Lands Beyond Beyond - extra solar planets - news and science
Life Beyond Earth

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