Archive for July 12, 2013

NASA Study Shows Disks Don’t Need Planets To Make Patterns

Image Credit: NASA Goddard/W. Lyra (JPL-Caltech), M. Kuchner (Goddard)

Image Credit: NASA Goddard/W. Lyra (JPL-Caltech), M. Kuchner (Goddard)

Many young stars known to host planets also possess disks containing dust and icy grains, particles produced by collisions among asteroids and comets also orbiting the star. These debris disks often show sharply defined rings or spiral patterns, features that could signal the presence of orbiting planets. Astronomers study the disk features as a way to better understand the physical properties of known planets and possibly uncover new ones.

But a new study by NASA scientists sounds a cautionary note in interpreting rings and spiral arms as signposts for new planets. Thanks to interactions between gas and dust, a debris disk may, under the right conditions, produce narrow rings on its own, no planets needed.

“When the mass of gas is roughly equal to the mass of dust, the two interact in a way that leads to clumping in the dust and the formation of patterns,” said lead researcher Wladimir Lyra, a Sagan Fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “In essence, the gas shepherds the dust into the kinds of structures we would expect to be see if a planet were present.”

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NGC 2392: A Beautiful End To A Star’s Life

Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/IAA-CSIC/N.Ruiz et al,); Optical (NASA/STScI)

Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/IAA-CSIC/N.Ruiz et al,); Optical (NASA/STScI)

Stars like the Sun can become remarkably photogenic at the end of their life. A good example is NGC 2392, which is located about 4,200 light years from Earth. NGC 2392, (nicknamed the “Eskimo Nebula”) is what astronomers call a planetary nebula. This designation, however, is deceiving because planetary nebulas actually have nothing to do with planets. The term is simply a historic relic since these objects looked like planetary disks to astronomers in earlier times looking through small optical telescopes.

Instead, planetary nebulas form when a star uses up all of the hydrogen in its core — an event our Sun will go through in about five billion years. When this happens, the star begins to cool and expand, increasing its radius by tens to hundreds of times its original size. Eventually, the outer layers of the star are carried away by a 50,000 kilometer per hour wind, leaving behind a hot core. This hot core has a surface temperature of about 50,000 degrees Celsius, and is ejecting its outer layers in a much faster wind traveling six million kilometers per hour. The radiation from the hot star and the interaction of its fast wind with the slower wind creates the complex and filamentary shell of a planetary nebula. Eventually the remnant star will collapse to form a white dwarf star.

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