The Strange World Around Fomalhaut
Fomalhaut b is a confirmed extrasolar object and planet orbiting the A-type main sequence star Fomalhaut, approximately 25 light-years away in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus. The object was discovered in 2008. Newly released NASA Hubble Space Telescope images of a vast debris disk encircling the nearby star Fomalhaut and a mysterious planet circling it may provide forensic evidence of a titanic planetary disruption in the system. Astronomers are surprised to find the debris belt (a really big asteroid belt when compared to the one between Mars and Jupiter) is wider than previously known, spanning a section of space from 14 to nearly 20 billion miles from the star. Even more surprisingly, the latest Hubble images have allowed a team of astronomers to calculate the planet follows an unusual elliptical orbit that will carry it on a potentially destructive path through the vast dust ring.
If current calculations are proven to be correct, Fomalhaut b is due to dive back into that debris disk around 2032, at which point astronomers will start watching very carefully to see if they can spot any collisions with further objects. If the planet orbits in the same plane as the debris disk, such collisions are entirely possible. Not a good place to live.
The planet swings as close to its star as 4.6 billion miles, and the outermost point of its orbit is 27 billion miles away from the star. The orbit was recalculated from the newest Hubble observation made last year.
"We are shocked. This is not what we expected," said Paul Kalas of the University of California at Berkeley and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.
The Fomalhaut team led by Kalas considers this circumstantial evidence there may be other planet-like bodies in the system that gravitationally disturbed Fomalhaut b to place it in such a highly eccentric orbit. The team presented its finding Tuesday at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif.
Among several scenarios to explain Fomalhaut b's 2,000-year-long orbit is the hypothesis that an as yet undiscovered planet gravitationally ejected Fomalhaut b from a position closer to the star, and sent it flying in an orbit that extends beyond the dust belt.
Fomalhaut b is orbiting its host star at a wide separation, where forming massive planets is difficult. To explain its current location, Fomalhaut b could have been dynamically scattered by a more massive, unseen body located at smaller separations. Several ground-based observations have searched for this hypothetical Fomalhaut c but have yet to find it, although they have limited the mass of such an object to be less than thirteen times the mass of Jupiter. Instead, Fomalhaut b could have formed in situ if it coalesced from small pebble-sized objects that rapidly formed into a protoplanetary core which in turn accreted a gaseous envelope.
Hubble also found the dust and ice belt encircling the star Fomalhaut has an apparent gap slicing across the belt. This might have been carved by another undetected planet. Hubble's exquisite view of the dust belt shows irregularities that strongly motivate a search for other planets in the system.
If its orbit lies in the same plane with the dust belt, then Fomalhaut b will intersect the belt around 2032 on the outbound leg of its orbit. During the crossing, icy and rocky debris in the belt could crash into the planet's atmosphere and create the type of cosmic fireworks seen when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. Most of the fireworks from collisions will be seen in infrared light. However, if Fomalhaut b is not co-planar with the belt, the only thing to be seen will be a gradual dimming of Fomalhaut b as it travels farther from the star.
Kalas hypothesized that Fomalhaut b's extreme orbit is a major clue in explaining why the planet is unusually bright in visible light, but very dim in infrared light. It is possible the planet's optical brightness originates from a ring or shroud of dust around the planet, which reflects starlight. The dust would be rapidly produced by satellites orbiting the planet, which would suffer extreme erosion by impacts and gravitational stirring when Fomalhaut b enters into the planetary system after a millennium of deep freeze beyond the main belt. An analogy can be found by looking at Saturn, which has a tenuous, but very large dust ring produced when meteoroids hit the outer moon Phoebe.
The team has also considered a different scenario where a hypothetical second dwarf planet suffered a catastrophic collision with Fomalhaut b. The collision scenario would explain why the star Fomalhaut has a narrow outer belt linked to an extreme planet. But in this case the belt is young, less than 10,000 years old, and it is difficult to produce energetic collisions far from the star in such young systems.
Fomalhaut is a special system because it looks like scientists may have a snapshot of what our solar system was doing 4 billion years ago. The planetary architecture is being redrawn, the comet belts are evolving, and planets may be gaining and losing their moons.
For further information see Fomalhaut B.
Orbit image via NASA.