University of Arizona astronomers have used a new technique called nulling interferometry to probe a dust disk around a young nearby star for the first time. They not only confirmed that the young star does have a protoplanetary disk the stuff from which solar systems are born but discovered a gap in the disk, which is strong evidence of a forming planet.
"It's very exciting to find a star that we think should be forming planets, and actually see evidence of that happening," said UA astronomer Philip Hinz.
"The bottom line is, we not only confirmed the hypothesis that this young star has a protoplanetary disk, we found evidence that a giant, Jupiter-like protoplanet is forming in this disk," said Wilson Liu, a doctoral student and research assistant on the project.
"There's evidence that this star is right on the cusp of becoming a main-sequence star," Liu added. "So basically, we're catching a star that is right at the point of becoming a main-sequence star, and it looks like it's caught in the act of forming planets."
Main-sequence stars are those like our sun that burn hydrogen at their cores.
Earlier this year, Hinz and Liu realized that observations of HD 100546 at thermal, or mid-infrared, wavelengths showed that the star had a dust disk.
Finding faint dust disks is "analogous to finding a lighted flashlight next to Arizona Stadium when the lights are on," Liu said.
The nulling technique combines starlight in such a way that it is canceled out, creating a dark background where the star's image normally would be. Because HD 100546 is such a young star, its dust disk is still relatively bright, about as bright as the star itself. The nulling technique is needed to distinguish what light comes from the star, which can be suppressed, and what comes from the extended dust disk, which nulling does not suppress.
Hinz and UA astronomers Michael Meyer, Eric Mamajek, and William Hoffmann took the observations in May 2002. They used BLINC, the only working nulling interferometer in the world, along with MIRAC, a state-of-the-art mid-infrared camera, on the 6.5-meter (21-foot) diameter Magellan telescope in Chile to study the roughly 10-million-year-old star in the Southern Hemisphere sky.
Typically, dust in disks around stars is uniformly distributed, forming a continuous, flattened, orbiting cloud of material that is hot on the inner edge but cold most of the distance to the frigid outer edge.
"The data reduction was complicated enough that we didn't realize until later that there was an inner gap in the disk," Hinz noted.
"We realized the disk appeared about the same size at warmer (10 micron) wavelengths and at colder (20 micron) wavelengths. The only way that could be is if there's an inner gap."
The most likely explanation for this gap is that it is created by the gravitational field of a giant protoplanet an object that could be several times more massive than Jupiter. The researchers believe the protoplanet may be orbiting the star at perhaps 10 AU. (An AU, or astronomical unit, is the distance between Earth and the sun. Jupiter is about 5 AU from the sun.)
Astronomers from the Netherlands and Belgium had previously used the Infrared Space Observatory to study HD 100546, which is 330 light-years from Earth. They detected comet-like dust around the star and concluded that it might be a protoplanetary disk. But the European space telescope was too small to clearly see dust surrounding the star.
Hinz, who developed BLINC, has been using the nulling interferometer with two 6.5-meter telescopes for the past three years for his survey of nearby stars in search of protoplanetary systems. In addition to the Magellan telescope that covers the Southern Hemisphere, Hinz uses the 6.5-meter UA/Smithsonian MMT atop Mount Hopkins, Ariz., for the Northern Hemisphere sky.
Hinz developed BLINC as a technology demonstration for the Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, which is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. NASA, which funds Hinz' survey, supports research on solar-system formation under its Origins program and is developing nulling interferometry for Terrestrial Planet Finder.
"Nulling interferometry is very exciting because it is one of only a few technologies that can directly image circumstellar environments," Liu said.
Using MIRAC, the camera developed by William Hoffmann and others, was important because it is sensitive to mid-infrared wavelengths, Hinz said. Astronomers will have to look in mid-infrared wavelengths, which correspond to room temperatures, to find planets with liquid water and possible life, he said.
Hinz' survey includes HD 100546 and other "Herbig Ae" stars, which are nearby young stars generally more massive than our sun, but are not yet main sequence stars powered by nuclear fusion.
Hinz and Liu plan to observe increasingly mature star systems, searching for ever-fainter circumstellar dust disks and planets, as they continue to improve nulling interferometry and adaptive optics technologies. Adaptive optics is a technique that eliminates the effects of Earth's shimmering atmosphere from starlight.
Hinz and others at UA Steward Observatory are designing a nulling interferometer for the Large Binocular Telescope, which will view the sky with two 8.4-meter (27-foot) diameter mirrors on Mount Graham, Ariz., in 2005.
The UA team is reporting the research in Astrophysical Journal Letters and also will present a paper on the research at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Atlanta, Ga., in January 2004.