What is hiding in the large disk of gas and dust encircling the 20 million-year-old star Beta Pictoris? In 1984 Beta Pictoris was the very first star discovered to be surrounded by a bright disk of dust and debris. Since then, Beta Pictoris has been an object of intense scrutiny with Hubble and ground-based telescopes.
Thanks to a new image, there is a better indication of what is going on in there. According to a NASA statement, the new images showing a primordial planet plowing through the debris disk around the young star.
The planet, which was discovered in 2009, goes around the star once every 18 to 20 years. This allows scientists to study in a comparably short time how a large planet distorts the massive gas and dust encircling the star.
“Some computer simulations predicted a complicated structure for the inner disc due to the gravitational pull by the short-period giant planet. The new images reveal the inner disc and confirm the predicted structures. This finding validates models, which will help us to deduce the presence of other exoplanets in other discs,” said Daniel Apai of the University of Arizona.
So what’s changed since the last time the astronomers imaged the disk? It appears that the dust distribution as barely changed over 15 years, despite the fact that the entire structure is orbiting the star like a carousel. This means that the disk’s structure is smoothly continuous in the direction of its rotation on the timescale, roughly, of the accompanying planet’s orbital period.
The disk itself is located about 63 light-years from Earth and is exceptionally bright due to the large amount of starlight-scattering dust. Beta Pictoris is also the first and best example of what a young planetary system looks like.
One thing astronomers recently have learned about circumstellar disks is that their structure, and amount of dust, is incredibly diverse and may be related to the locations and masses of planets in those systems.
“The Beta Pictoris disk is the prototype for circumstellar debris systems, but it may not be a good archetype,” said Dr Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona, Tucson, a co-author of the paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal.
When the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018 followed by the European Extremely Large Telescope in 2024, researchers should get an even better view of the processes in action around Beta Pictoris.