Space

February 1, 2013

Herschel finds star possibly making planets past its prime

A star thought to have passed the age at which it can form planets may in fact be creating new worlds. The disk of material surrounding the surprising star called TW Hydrae may be massive enough to make even more planets than we have in our own solar system.

The findings were made using the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Telescope, a mission in which NASA is a participant.

At roughly 10 million years old and 176 light years away, TW Hydrae is relatively close to Earth by astronomical standards. Its planet-forming disk has been well studied. TW Hydrae is relatively young but, in theory, it is past the age at which giant plants already may have formed.

“We didn’t expect to see so much gas around this star,” said Edwin Bergin of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Bergin led the new study appearing in the journal Nature. “Typically stars of this age have cleared out their surrounding material, but this star still has enough mass to make the equivalent of 50 Jupiters,” Bergin said.

In addition to revealing the peculiar state of the star, the findings also demonstrate a new, more precise method for weighing planet-forming disks. Previous techniques for assessing the mass were indirect and uncertain. The new method can directly probe the gas that typically goes into making planets.

Planets are born out of material swirling around young stars, and the mass of this material is a key factor controlling their formation. Astronomers did not know before the new study whether the disk around TW Hydrae contained enough material to form new planets similar to our own.

“Before, we had to use a proxy to guess the gas quantity in the planet-forming disks,” said Paul Goldsmith, the NASA project scientist for Herschel at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “This is another example of Herschel’s versatility and sensitivity yielding important new results about star and planet formation.”

Using Herschel, they were able to take a fresh look at the disk with the space telescope to analyze light coming from TW Hydrae and pick out the spectral signature of a gas called hydrogen deuteride. Simple hydrogen molecules are the main gas component of planets, but they emit light at wavelengths too short to be detected by Herschel. Gas molecules containing deuterium, a heavier version of hydrogen, emit light at longer, far-infrared wavelengths that Herschel is equipped to see. This enabled astronomers to measure the levels of hydrogen deuteride and obtain the weight of the disk with the highest precision yet.

“Knowing the mass of a planet-forming disk is crucial to understanding how and when planets take shape around other stars,” said Glenn Wahlgren, Herschel program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Whether TW Hydrae’s large disk will lead to an exotic planetary system with larger and more numerous planets than ours remains to be seen, but the new information helps define the range of possible planet scenarios.

“The new results are another important step in understanding the diversity of planetary systems in our universe,” said Bergin. “We are now observing systems with massive Jupiters, super-Earths, and many Neptune-like worlds. By weighing systems at their birth, we gain insight into how our own solar system formed with just one of many possible planetary configurations.”

Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by a consortium of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA’s Herschel Project Office is based at JPL, which contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel’s three science instruments. NASA’s Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

 




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

Headlines July 23, 2014

News: Israel’s Iron Dome defense in line for tripled U.S. spending - Israel’s iron Dome missile defense system may end up getting triple the U.S. funding that the Defense Department sought for it in March. Ukraine asked U.S. for systems to counter Russian missiles - A month before the United States says a Russian missile likely brought...
 
 

News Briefs July 23, 2014

U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan at 2,194 As of July 22, 2014, at least 2,194 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count. The AP count is three less than the Defense Department’s tally. At least...
 
 
Raytheon photograph

Raytheon completes key Air, Missile Defense Radar reviews

Raytheon photograph Partially-populated, full-sized Air and Missile Defense Radar array. Raytheon has completed two critical program reviews for the new Air and Missile Defense Radar, the U.S. Navy’s next generation integ...
 

 
Insitu photograph

Insitu demonstrates long endurance capabilities of Integrator unmanned aircraft

Insitu photograph Insitu’s Integrator unmanned aircraft recovers via SkyHook; the aircraft recently completed a 24-hour endurance flight. Insitu announced July 22 the successful 24-hour flight of its Integrator unmanned a...
 
 

NASA partners punctuate summer with spacecraft development advances

Spacecraft and rocket development is on pace this summer for NASA’s aerospace industry partners for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program as they progress through systems testing, review boards and quarterly sessions under their† Space Act Agreements with the agency. NASA engineers and specialists continue their review of the progress as the agency and partners move...
 
 

U.S. Navy selects Northrop Grumman for ship self-defense system

The U.S. Navy has awarded Northrop Grumman a $12 million task order for a full range of engineering services to continue modernizing the Ship Self-Defense System Mark 2. The contract has a potential value of $61 million over five years, if all options are exercised. SSDS MK2 is a combat system designed for anti-air defense...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>