Protoplanetary disks around three young stars in Ophiuchus have large central holes, astronomers have found, which were presumably cleared by still-growing Jupiter-mass planets. But there’s a problem: the stars are too young. How would planets have formed in just a couple million years?

Atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, at 13,400 feet, the eight 6-meter antennas of the Sub-Millimeter Array interferometer visible at the center in a compact configuration. Some of the sites for the more extended configuration used in the research reported here are visible to the left. The Subaru Telescope is at top right, and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope at the bottom.

This is not the first observation suggesting central gaps in the disks of gas and dust around newborn stars (S&T: November 2008, page 32). In the present case, infrared spectra from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope had already provided hints, says lead author Sean Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics). “One of the disks, SR 21, we knew had a hole from the Spitzer observations.” But the evidence was indirect; Spitzer’s 0.85-meter aperture could not resolve the hole, only detect the absence of short-wavelength infrared radiation that would be emitted by warm dust closer to the star.

In their new paper, Andrews and collaborators provide an actual image of a hole. “This is hot stuff! Clearly we are on the verge of catching planet formation in action,” comments Alan Boss (Carnegie Institution, Washington), who did not take part in the study.

These are the three protoplanetary disks showing signs of central clearings, as imaged by the SMA. Each disk is seen nearly edge-on, giving the images the appearance of a doughnut cross-section. In each, the top-right ellipse show the size of Neptune's orbit for comparison. The bottom-left ellipses show the size and shape of the telescope's beam — that is, the resolution of the image.

Sean Andrews et al.

Andrews and collaborators used the Sub-Millimeter Array interferometer on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to form images with a resolution of 0.3 arcseconds — enough to show holes with a radius of 40 astronomical units at the distance where the stars are, about 400 light-years away in Ophiuchus. This is the nearest active star-forming region to Earth.

The researchers studied nine disks and found that three harbor large central cavities. But these numbers do not imply that every third disk will form planets, because the sample was biased. “We’ve picked the most massive disks to look at,” explains co-author David Wilner.

The disks are larger than our solar system, and the central holes are at least the size of Neptune’s orbit. “You need something with Jupiter’s mass to clear that,” Andrews explains.

In fact the mass clearing out the hole could be one giant planet, or several, or a swarm of rocks and rubble, or perhaps an undetected binary companion to the star. “They still haven’t shown that there isn’t a brown dwarf,” says Carol Grady (NASA).

Finding a fully-formed planet in a disk a few million years old would be big news. Theorists expect the slow process of collisions and accretion to take about 10 million years for dust and rocks to collect into planets and clear away a protoplanetary disk. On the other hand, gravitational instabilities in the disk might act more quickly, forming a stellar-like companion such as a brown dwarf or a lower-mass object mimicking a conventional giant planet. The line between Jupiter-like planets and brown dwarfs is difficult to draw, and scientists would like to know which mechanism drives the formation of each or both.

Interestingly, of the nine disks, the three with holes seem to be the oldest — possibly older than a few million years.

Access to the ALMA Operations Support Facility (OSF), at 9,500feet, is seen from the road near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The ALMA Operation Site (AOS), at 16,500 feet, will receive dozens of large, high-precision dishes (12 and 7 meters wide) in the next few years for installation across an area 10 miles across.


Jack Lissauer (NASA) is impatient to see the analysis techniques of this paper applied to the higher-resolution data that will come from the upcoming ESO Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), now being built on a high plain in the Andes. “The fact that they can do this with the SMA is exciting, because ALMA is coming up soon.” ALMA, along with other instruments, should enable detailed observations of the structure of the disks and maybe even reveal what lurks in the central clearing.

Routine operations of ALMA during observations will be run from the Operations Support Facility, at a relatively accessible and breathable 9,500 feet near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.



Image of Matt P

Matt P

June 15, 2009 at 8:12 pm

What is it about these particular wavelengths--the submillimeter and large millimeter range of the spectrum--that makes them good tools for studying protoplanetary formation? What is it they're able to reveal that would be missed by an optical telescope, on one side, and a radio telescope, on the other?

Matt P.
Silver Spring, MD

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Image of Tomasz Kokowski

Tomasz Kokowski

June 16, 2009 at 2:59 am

Such objects like dusty disks (dust and fine/small grains) are so less reflective in visual light to see them in visual range. Enlighted by their host stars they reemit energy of local visible light in infrared range at some different wavelenghts depending on size of dust grains and chemical composition. This reemited radiation is visible to our scopes.

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Sean Andrews

June 16, 2009 at 8:47 am

Compared to optical (or other relatively short) wavelengths, the submillimeter part of the spectrum is useful for several reasons in this context: (1) the star is very faint compared to the disk (in these cases at least 1000x fainter). So the disk emission is not swamped by starlight contamination like in the optical (and we don't have to use a coronagraph); (2) the angular resolution is very high, thanks to the interferometer, and comparable or better than most infrared capabilities. Moreover, since the submillimeter emission is a better tracer of cold material, we can more easily see most of the outer regions of the disk that are very faint at shorter wavelengths; and perhaps most importantly (3) the submillimeter emission is "optically-thin", meaning that we're seeing light from all of the dust in the disk. The sub-mm emission therefore is an excellent tracer of mass in the disk. On the other hand, optical/infrared images of disks are only tracing the light that scatters off the very upper layers in the tenuous disk atmosphere.

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January 11, 2010 at 6:04 pm

NASA is the world leader in space research & here every year lot of new born stars were discovered.But the complete research on those newly found stars are taking time.
zero gravity recliners

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