Planets apparently can form in many more binary-star systems than previously thought, according to astronomers who used the National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope to image protoplanetary disks around a close pair of stars.
“Most stars in the universe are not alone, like our Sun, but are part of double or triple systems, so this means that the number of potential planets is greater than we realized,” said Luis Rodriguez, of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, who led an international observing team that made the discovery. The astronomers announced their results in the Sept. 24 issue of the scientific journal Nature.
The researchers used the VLA to study a stellar nursery — a giant cloud of gas and dust — some 450 light-years distant in the constellation Taurus, where stars the size of the Sun or smaller are being formed. They aimed at one particular object, that, based on previous infrared and radio observations, was believed to be a very young star.
The VLA observations showed that the object was not a single young star but a pair of young stars, separated only slightly more than the Sun and Pluto. The VLA images show that each star in the pair is surrounded by an orbiting disk of dust, extending out about as far as the orbit of Saturn. Such dusty disks are believed to be the material from which planets form.
Similar disks are seen around single stars, but the newly-discovered disks around the stars in the binary system are about ten times smaller, their size limited by the gravitational effect of the other, nearby star. Their existence indicates, however, that such protoplanetary disks, though truncated in size, still can survive in such a close double-star system.
“It was surprising to see these disks in a binary system with the stars so close together,” said Rodriguez.
“Each of these disks contains enough mass to form a solar system like our own,” said David Wilner, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA. “However, we don’t think these solar systems would be able to form outer, icy planets like Uranus and Neptune, because of the small size of the dust disks.”
The new observations “imply that young protoplanetary disks can contain considerably more mass within (a distance equal to Saturn’s orbital radius) than astronomers have been willing to contemplate,” wrote Alan P. Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in an accompanying Nature article analyzing the results.
If the stars were a few times closer together, the researchers point out, the gravitational effects of both would disrupt the disks and prevent any planets from forming.
“If these disks form planetary systems, they would be among the closest possible adjacent sets of planets in the universe,” said Rodriguez.
Boss suggested that a giant planet formed near the edge of one of the disks might be ejected from the system by the gravitational effect of the companion star. This, he says, might explain the possible “runaway planet” shown in a Hubble Space Telescope image released in May. In that result, a planet appears to have been ejected by a binary-star system similar in size to that seen by the VLA. Further observations are required to confirm that result.
In addition to Rodriguez and Wilner, the researchers are Paola D’Alessio, Salvador Curiel, Yolanda Gomez, Susana Lizano, Jorge Canto, and Alejandro C. Raga of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City; Paul Ho of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Jose M. Torrelles of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalucia in Spain; and Alan Pedlar of the Jodrell Bank observatory in Britain.
The observations of the double-star system were made at a radio wavelength of 7 millimeters, a wavelength at which emission from cosmic dust is readily detected. Astronomers long realized that the VLA had sufficient resolving power — the ability to see fine detail — to make images of the dust disks around young stars that form the building blocks of planets. Until 1993, however, the VLA could not do so because it had no receivers that worked at the required wavelength, 7 mm.
Rodriguez, an experienced VLA observer interested in how planetary systems form, obtained a $1 million grant in 1992 from Mexico’s National Science and Technology Foundation (Spanish acronym CONACyT) to allow the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) to build such receivers for 13 of the VLA’s 27 230-ton dish antennas. Those receivers were built and installed in 1993 and 1994, and now are used by numerous observers, including Rodriguez. With these receivers, the VLA images show 10 times more detail than any previous observations at these wavelengths.
“This research proves how valuable these receivers are in increasing the scientific capability of the VLA,” said Miller Goss, NRAO’s director of VLA operations. “In fact, this type of work is one reason the U.S. National Science Foundation is providing the money to equip the rest of the VLA’s antennas with the same kind of receivers.”
The additional receivers will greatly improve the quality of images for complex objects, including planetary systems in formation, said NRAO astronomer Rick Perley. “We plan a major upgrade to all aspects of the VLA in the next few years,” Perley said. “The VLA upgrade will mean that astronomers using this wavelength can find about 60 times more objects of any particular type and make better images of them. That improves the chances of finding rare objects, which often are the signposts pointing to new insights into physics.”
Dave Finley, National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Megan Watzke, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics