Astronomy in the News
This artist's concept shows a lump of material in a swirling,
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / R. Hurt (SSC).
Spitzer Spots Clump of Planetary Material
NASA / JPL
have 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
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
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 be-come, or indirectly shape, a planet," said James Muzerolle of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md. "This is a unique, real-time glimpse into the lengthy process of building planets."
The observations showed that light from the inner region of the star's disk changes every few weeks, and, in one instance, in only one week. "Transition disks are rare enough, so to see one with this type of variability is really exciting," said co-author Kevin Flaherty of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
If you enjoyed this excerpt from a feature article and would like to receive our quarterly Mercury magazine, we invite you to join the ASP and receive 4 issues a year.