NASA Spitzer Telescope "Sees" Birth of Planet
A newly released paper from NASA shows something astronomers have long postulated, but never observed. Astronomers witnessed odd behavior around a young star. Something, perhaps another star or a planet, appears to be pushing a clump of planet-forming material around. The observations, made with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, offer a rare look into the early stages of planet formation.
Planets form out of swirling disks of gas and dust. Spitzer observed infrared light coming from one such disk around a young star, called LRLL 31, over a period of five months. To the astronomers' surprise, the light varied in unexpected ways, and in as little time as one week. Planets take millions of years to form, so it's rare to see anything change on time scales we humans can perceive.
One possible explanation is that a close companion to the star -- either a star or a developing planet -- could be shoving planet-forming material together, causing its thickness to vary as it spins around the star.
"We don't know if planets have formed, or will form, but we are gaining a better understanding of the properties and dynamics of the fine dust that could either become, or indirectly shape, a planet," said James Muzerolle of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md. Muzerolle is first author of a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. "This is a unique, real-time glimpse into the lengthy process of building planets."
One theory of planet formation suggests that planets start out as dusty grains swirling around a star in a disk. They slowly bulk up in size, collecting more and more mass like sticky snow. As the planets get bigger and bigger, they carve out gaps in the dust, until a so-called transitional disk takes shape with a large doughnut-like hole at its center. Over time, this disk fades and a new type of disk emerges, made up of debris from collisions between planets, asteroids and comets. Ultimately, a more settled, mature solar system like our own forms.
Before Spitzer was launched in 2003, only a few transitional disks with gaps or holes were known. With Spitzer's improved infrared vision, dozens have now been found. The space telescope sensed the warm glow of the disks and indirectly mapped out their structures.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.